Networking (or, Learning as a Team)

Networking: (v.) a professional term for making friends and then shamelessly using them to learn things and get places in life.

Today, I had the privilege of sitting in on a discussion with several peers in the communications field as they discussed where they’ve gone since college, and what they’ve learned in the process. Everyone has a different story, and hearing insightful people unpack what they’ve learned is a valuable experience.

My four biggest takeaways . . .

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Six Years Old on a Plane

One Christmas when I was small, my family flew to Florida to spend the holiday with my grandparents. Our family of seven rarely flew places when I was younger, since corralling five children through an airport is both costly and (I imagine) exhausting.

The travel day, already an adventure, became more exciting when we ate ice cream for lunch, and climaxed when I was given the privilege of sitting . . .

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10 Typical Meeting Behaviors

Meetings are one of those interesting topics that almost everyone has an opinion about—

some people really love them (large groups help me brainstorm),
some people really despise them (you expect me to be articulate on the spot in a room full of people?),
but not many people view them with complete ambivalence.

Just as there are many strong opinion about meetings, there is more than one distinct . . .

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20 Years of Perfect Grammar

This week, one of my highly esteemed coworkers celebrated her 20th anniversary on the job. She’s been at it for *almost* as long as I’ve been alive, and she’s still going strong.

Not everyone has a positive key word that describes them—most of us are checking in somewhere around “present,” “trying not to fall asleep,” “mediocre,” or “making it . . .

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George Washington's Key to Leadership

Leadership isn’t just being in charge of people—it’s the ability to motivate men and women to persevere in the face of dreadful opposition, insurmountable odds, and flagging spirits.

George Washington is held up as one of the main reasons for America’s independence, though he had many flaws and made more than one costly mistake. In 1776 David McCullough outlines the trait that brought Washington, thus the Continental Army, success:

He was not a brilliant strategist or tactician, not a gift orator, not an intellectual. At several crucial moments he had shown marked indecisiveness. He had made serious mistakes in judgment. But experience had been his great teacher from boyhood, and in this his greatest test, he learned steadily from experience. Above all, Washington never forgot what was at stake and he never gave up.

Again and again, in letters to Congress and to his officers, and in his general orders, he had called for perseverance—for “perseverance and spirit,” for “patience and perseverance,” for “unremitting courage and perseverance.” Soon after the victories of Trenton and Princeton, he had written: “A people unused to restraint must be led, they will not be drove.”

Yet Washington only took the responsibility of leading his country in the battle against America because he believed in the vision: that all men are created equal, and that the oppressive tyranny that the United Colonies were being subjected to was unjust. He had nothing to offer his soldiers but the vision of freedom, and when all else failed, this is indeed how he was able to motivate them to persevere.

On December 30, 1776, when the contracts of many of the soldiers in his army were expiring, winter had begun full-force, and all seemed lost, Washington made the appeal to his troops to continue fighting and not abandon the cause of freedom.

One of the soldiers would remember his regiment being called into formation and His Excellency, astride a big horse, addressing them “in the most affectionate manner.” The great majority of the men were New Englanders who had served longer than any and who had no illusions about what was being asked of them. Those willing to stay were asked to step forward. Drums rolled, but no one moved. Minutes passed. Then Washington “wheeled his horse about” and spoke again.

“My brave fellows, you have done all I asked you to do, and more than could be reasonably expected, but your country is at stake, your wives, your houses, and all that you hold dear. You have worn yourselves out with fatigues and hardships, but we know not how to spare you. If you will consent to stay one month longer, you will render that service to the cause of liberty, and to your country, which you can probably never do under any other circumstance.”

Again the drums sounded and this time the men began stepping forward. “God Almighty, wrote Nathanael Greene, “inclined their hearts to listen to the proposal and they engaged anew.”

Being a good leader isn’t only about upholding the cause—it’s also about casting the vision to persevere when all seems lost.

5 Secrets to a Successful Celebration

Curtis (he’s very wonderful) and I spent the last three days living the party life. Crazy, I know.

We attended a wedding, a birthday party, a baby shower, and a bridal shower in four different cities. After spending 72 hours celebrating people at four occasions held by radically different hosts, I discovered that there are a few key themes in holding a celebration for someone.

1. It’s not about the money.
People often equate the quality of a celebration with the amount of money that’s poured into it. But at the end of the day, if you’re having a party (unless you associate with millionaires on the regular), not one will care if you have dippin’ dots instead of caviar. People are more interested in the mood.

2. Care about your guests.
If people are more interested in the mood, and you want them to enjoy it, make it easy to enjoy. Create a cheerful atmosphere, be kind and attentive to your guests, and remind them that you’re grateful for their presence (and presents, if it’s that kind of thing). And give them something to do, so they don’t have to stand around awkwardly trying to make friends with your coworker who you also invited or your grandma who’s a little deaf.

3. Have a plan—and to be flexible.
Give your guests something to do: icebreakers when they come in, a few more intentional games, snacks or drinks to hold on to, and intentional conversation starters. But, if one activity eats up more time than it’s supposed to, or the food you’re getting catered arrives 45 minutes late, don’t throw a fit. No one else cares as much as you do.

4. Food isn’t the main priority.
Guests don’t come to the wedding for the food, they come to see you get married. Food catastrophes are common, but five years down the road, no one will remember if there weren’t enough hot dogs at your birthday party (but they may remember if they all get food poisoning from the hot dogs, so try not to serve old hot dogs). If something goes wrong with the food, take a quick trip to the store—or just apologize to your guests and tell them they’ll have to stop at McDonalds on the way home.

5. A little thoughtfulness goes a long way.
You’ll have more of an influence in someone’s life if you sit and listen to them for eight minutes than if you spend eight minutes trying to make sure everyone knows how much time you spent making the decorations perfect. Pay attention to people, listen to them, and show them you care about them—that’s what will make a celebration they never forget.

People Who Brave Chicago Snowstorms

Thursday night and all day Friday, a casual observer would’ve assumed Chicago was preparing for Y2K—alas, no such superstition proved true. It was just another snowstorm.

After 36 hours of spitting snow, take-your-breath-away wind, and thick cloud cover, the weather is back to normal: sunny and cold, with a few inches of snow on the ground, and clear, salty streets. I’m sure it’s come as a surprise to the thousands of people who spent Friday afternoon spending their paycheck on bottled water, canned food, and candles.

Because I’ve only cultivated enough good sense to keep from wandering alleys in the dark, of course when it shows the first thing I do is put on my warm clothes and go outside.

After spending a few hours outside every day, I’ve learned there are lots of different kinds of people who go out in Chicago winter.

My dog is tired: A man wearing mustard-yellow ski pants charged past me, wearing an adult golden retriever slung rather unceremoniously over his shoulders. The dog kept sniffing people’s faces, and when an old lady reacted in surprise at a wet nose inches from her own, the dog-carrying man grunted and said, “He’s just tired.”

My rain boots are impervious: Chicago natives (should) all know that in a heavy snow, it’s far better to wear rain boots than snow boots. The city dumps about 1 ton of salt every 60 minutes, so within an hour of the snow, everything that used to be covered in pretty white is gray slush. Countless people who do know the secret of rain boots in the snow charge through intersections with little regard for anyone else—or their own feet.

My marathon training can’t wait: If running in the city isn’t already dangerous enough for you (concrete + knees = hasty joint demise), try doing it when there’s packed snow and ice on a third of your route—but make sure you don’t care about your pants. Yesterday, a runner hurried across an intersection in front of me, stomping in every slushy puddle. His joggers were splattered with water from knees down, and his shoes were saturated.

My sidewalk is my passion: It’s easy to tell the difference between the people who take pride in cleaning their 64 square feet of sidewalk, and the people who just don’t care. We have one neighbor who always shovels and salts his walk by nine a.m., and another neighbor who waits until mid-afternoon to casually step out, test the slickness, and throw some salt on top of everything. If it doesn’t melt today, I know it’ll by gone by April.

My closet is empty: Because I’m wearing every single article of clothing I own. And I also can’t turn my neck more than eight degrees. But it sure is toasty up in here.

My man card needs more punches: Manliness—or maybe just desperation for cash—inspires dozens of brave delivery bikers to skid and slip along the soggy streets. It’s a whole new level of crazy. Reminiscent of second grade, most of them also drag their toes to stop.

My kids? What kids? Sometimes adults forget the thrill, awe, and wonder of the first snow, and only realize half-way down the block that their six-year-old and eight-year-old are throwing snowballs back at the corner. It’s a sorry thing to be upset about.

My feet are so stylish: There’s a lot of real estate for commentary on winter footwear. About half the people who venture into the weather choose fashion over function. Apparently it’s cool now to arrive at your final destination with frostbitten toes and sloshing shoes, instead of dry feet in ugly waterproof boots. Also, exposed ankle skin must be stylish too. Who doesn’t want red, itchy ankles for two hours after coming inside?

My home is not here: It’s easy to tell who’s not from around here for two reasons. 1) I have a not-black ski coat. 2) I stop to take pictures of buildings in nine degree weather.

My, this is nothing: This measly snowfall has nothing on the blizzard of ’12. Or ‘94. ‘92. ‘86. ‘81. Etc.

What a good weekend to be alive.

Three Rules for Driving in Chicago Traffic

Most people are prompted to write because they have some terrible experience or because they have a burning message in their heart they need to share.

In my case, it’s a little of both.

On Saturday, Curtis (he’s very wonderful) and I drove into Chicago from the suburbs. Since it was rush hour, the drive that should have taken us one hour took us two.

By the end of the trip—though I’m neither prone to fits of rage, nor inclined to acts of anger—I was having a rather tortured experience. You know the feeling: when you sit for 20 minutes in a line of cars at a traffic signal and just when you’re about to go through, a speeding car cuts you off. It inspires some grim emotions.

What if, instead of looking out for their own gain in driving, people were thinking about each other?

Ground rules for driving in traffic and in general:

Be Smooth
Growing up, my sister gave me one ground rule for driving: imagine you’re balancing a glass of milk on your head, and drive accordingly. AKA, your grandma doesn’t want to get whiplash from the half-mile drive to the grocery store.

Be Shrewd
Think you can make the light, but you’re not quite sure and there’s a semi speeding toward the intersection? Practice critical thinking. For everyone except the man himself, driving is not a time to be padding the Evel Knievel section of your resume.

Be Courteous
If you’re letting cars in on purpose instead of trying to keep them out and waving your hand angrily when you get cut off, it pays in two ways. 1) You don’t get a rage ulcer from repeatedly not getting your way, and 2) good will begets good will. If everyone is being kind to the other drivers on the road, everyone will get receive positive benefits from it.

If every Chicago driver lived by these rules, we’d have fewer accidents, fewer heart attacks, and fewer gray hairs.

Why You Should Love Doing Laundry

I looked up poems about doing laundry, but found mostly stream of consciousness rants from disenchanted housewives.

Being neither disenchanted, nor possessing an articulate stream of consciousness by this time of night, here instead is a list of all the reasons why you should love doing laundry.

Socks: If you wash your socks your feet won’t smell. That’s good, because if your feet smell, when you go bowling and trade in your shoes, it will ruin the taste of the pizza.

Jeans: Remember the day you called in sick to work but actually walked around New York City in the rain? At the next company picnic, your boss might be suspicious when he sees the mustard stains, muddy hems, and little white spot where you sat on bird scat without realizing it.

Undershirts: Every once in a while, when you’re lifting chili or saucy wings to your mouth, a little bit might spill around the neck of your white shirts. If you wear that under your collared shirt to a job interview, it will be distracting. So distracting that your chances of getting a job may be ruined.

Under-other-things: this is just a good idea for hygiene etc.

Dress shirts: Everyone knows the middle school boy look—crumpled shirt with sweat stains around the armpits. It shouts, “I found this under the bed where I kicked it last time I took it off.” You’re thinking, if it’s fine for them, it’s fine for me. Here’s how you should decide if that’s right: are you in middle school?

Dresses: Unwashed dresses have a certain limp look to them, a look that whispers, “Four wears ago I was clean. Now I smell like musty deodorant.” And if you wear musty deodorant on a first date, the effect will likely be somewhat underwhelming.

Skirts: Wrinkles and spots: 0, Looking professional: 1. The best way to get a promotion is to look like you deserve it.

Dress pants: Dress pants are notorious for collecting white powder-ish stuff, which the casual observer might mistake for dandruff, which would interfere with their ability to make eye contact with you.

Sweatshirts: It’s hard to make an every-wear wash case for sweatshirts—but when you notice your sweatshirt smells a little funny, and has sticky drips on the front from where you ate ice cream in the dark, coffee spots on the sleeves, and a little engine grease from when you changed the oil, it’s time to wash it.

T-shirts: See Undershirts and Dress Shirts.

Many of the reasons that pressure you to do laundry are social and societal—and maybe it’s nice for everyone else if you don’t smell funny and have strangely shaped stains on your clothing.

But what’s really nice is putting on clean socks, fresh-smelling jeans, and a crisply ironed dress shirt.

And that’s really why you should love doing laundry.

Eight Classic Office Personalities

There’s a lot of high drama in an office environment. Combining a small space with tight deadlines is bound to bring out people’s real personalities fairly quickly.

What personalities, you wonder? I’m so glad you asked.

Social butterfly
Things you’ll often hear from the social butterfly:
My computer broke so I’m just wandering around talking to people.
What did you think about the new movie? I went to see it with three different groups.
I invited 270 people to my wife’s birthday party—wanna come?

Prickly nice guy
Though it’s a label with an identity crisis, there are people in the world who can grumble about projects or people in one breath and check to see if you’re doing okay in the next.

But I didn’t do it
If I’m walking with my eyes closed and you’ve got your back to me, and I walk into you and you drop hot coffee on my foot, it wasn’t me. No one listens to me, I’m misunderstood, and I didn’t break it.

Fashion connoisseur
A lot of people (okay, me. I’ll admit it) have 10 or 15 outfits that they cycle through week after week. But there are some people with special fashion taste that dive into their closet, dig out some clothes, and make new combinations every day. And they somehow always look straight-from-a-magazine good.

Endlessly consistent
Signs that you work with one of these:

  • Every time you schedule an event or plan something, it’s the exact same as the last one, and the one before that, and the one . . .

  • Whenever you see something they’ve done, you get déjà vu

  • Deviating from the norm is simply not an option

Staunch introverts
If there’s one thing that can really give ulcers to 80 percent of a crowd, it’s putting four staunch introverts in a room with one social butterfly. Side note: though they say opposites attract, in this case it’s not true.

Information bank
Everyone prides themselves for different talents, but these people have a special talent for nosing into information, keeping it all in their heads, and pulling it out whenever needed.

Who you know
Somewhere along the way, someone said it’s not what you know, it’s who you know—and really, what better excuse is there for missing a deadline: I was having coffee and crumpets with the boss.

A lot of life is spent learning how to work with people.

The process often lives on a sliding scale that can move from ‘miserable’ to ‘frustrating’ to ‘rewarding’ to ‘delightful’ in a manner of moments (words, really), depending on how an interaction is going.

When you’re working through something with someone who’s different from you—social butterfly and staunch introvert go on eight-hour car trip to a sales conference—remember that you have as many idiosyncrasies as they do. Remember that you both need bountiful grace, and at times, neither of you will deserve it.

And remember that one of the great joys in life is overcoming relational difficulties and learning how to get along. Maybe even becoming friends, if you’re feeling crazy.