One year

One year ago today, I started my ‘blog.  Happy anniversary to me!

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Be the best you you can be

Ho-Jon: “How can I ever thank you?”
Hawkeye Pierce: “You just go and be the best you you can be.”

“Won’t you please, please tell me what we’ve learned?  I know it sounds absurd, but please tell me who I am…”
— Supertramp, “The Logical Song”

“Who are you?  Who, who, who, who?”
— The Who

At my CrossFit gym last night, we had a tearful good-bye to a friend (one of our members) who was moving out to the western part of the state, along with her husband and children, for a new life.  One thing she said struck me: “I’m not the same person I was when I walked into this place.  How is this new person going to be able to adapt to a new place?  Am I going to be able to find another Ray, or another [name], or another [another name]…?”

I said to her, “all you can do is be you.”

I said that, and I believe that.  But what, exactly, does that mean?

I could probably write an entire book about that (and some people have), but I’ll spare you the gory details.  Besides, I’m no psychologist, and what I say might be worth about as much as a politician’s alt-facts (don’t get me started).  But, since this is a ‘blog article, and I write what I think, well…

For starters, you’re the one person whom you’ll get to know the best.  You know your likes and dislikes, your strengths and weaknesses, your tastes, your interests, and so on, better than anyone else.  You’re the one person over whom you have complete, 100% control (disclaimer: I am not talking clinically; that is another discussion about which I know nearly nothing).   If you don’t know yourself, if you don’t take stock of who you are, you’ll start having issues.

Knowing yourself leads you to something else: having confidence and faith in yourself.  If you know yourself, you know, for the most part, what you’re capable of doing.  I’m not always sure as to what I’m capable of handling, but I do know myself enough to know what I can do.

This bring me to another thought: being you also means testing your limits.  Testing your limits means stepping outside your comfort zone.  Are you capable of doing more?  Often, you won’t know until you try.  And once you do try, how does it make you feel?  Proud?  Accomplished?  Can you do even better the next time you try?  The point is, you will always be you, but you are never static.  We are always changing.  Who you are now is probably not the same you from years ago.  And who you will be in several years won’t be the same you that you are now.

The world is a scary place.  It is human nature to fear what we don’t know.  But the world around us often defines who we are.  Who we are depends on what kind of cards we’re dealt.  We are often shaped by the changes we face.  And in the end, the way you deal with change is to continue being the same, ever-changing you that you’ve always been.

The checklist manifesto

Some time ago, I came up with a new presentation idea that I tentatively titled “The magic of checklists.”  The idea is to demonstrate how checklists can improve tasks in any organization.  I have a number of ideas regarding this presentation, and I’ll expand upon them in a future ‘blog article.

As preparation for this idea, I assigned myself some homework.  My friend, Greg Moore, recommended a book to read: The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande.  I borrowed a copy from the local library and started reading.

The book (which I’m still reading) is turning out to be an excellent read: so much so that I’m considering purchasing my own copy, instead of just relying on the one I borrowed from the library.  (This way, I can use a highlighter and scribble my own notes in the book.). Yes, it reinforces my ideas about using a checklist to improve upon workplace tasks.  But I’m also discovering that there is so much more.  Reading this book has enlightened me on numerous ideas that had never occurred to me.

The book hits upon numerous concepts, each of which is worth an entire presentation in their own right.  Among them: the importance of communication, organizational structure, teamwork, crew/team resource management, keeping an open mind, empowering a team, following instructions, making adjustments, and doing the right thing.  (Since I’m not yet finished with the book, there are likely a number of other concepts I haven’t mentioned that I haven’t yet come across.). When I first picked up the book, my initial thought was, “how much can there be about a simple checklist?”  I’ve since learned that a checklist — any checklist, no matter how small — is not simple.  And while a checklist is an important tool, it is also a big part of an even bigger process.  All the ideas I listed several sentences ago are all part of that process.

I’d like to relay a story I came upon in the book.  David Lee Roth of Van Halen was famously known for canceling concerts if his instructions for leaving a bowl of M&Ms with the brown ones removed in the dressing room were not followed.  Many people — myself included — decried him for these seemingly cockamamie instructions.  However, there was a method to his madness.  It turned out that this was a test.  If that instruction hadn’t been followed, then it was possible that another critical instruction — like, say, installing bracing to ensure the stage didn’t collapse — had not been followed.  (And before you think instructions like these can’t be missed, they can, and they have — sometimes, with disastrous consequences.) It goes to show that there is always more to the story.

Once I finish reading this book and can organize my thoughts, I’ll put out another article and another presentation (hopefully, coming soon to a SQL Saturday near you).  In the meantime, I highly recommend this book.  Maybe it’ll change your perspective the way it has changed mine.

“I lost my job. Now what?!?”

Before any of my friends panic, no, I didn’t actually lose my job (at least not at the time of this article); this is just what I’m using for the title.

Having said that, here’s a little background for what prompted me to write this. A few weeks ago, I saw a Facebook post from a friend of mine. She was (understandably) flustered because her husband had lost his job.  I wanted to help them (and others) out, so I began jotting down my thoughts for this article.  Ironically, I had a Facebook “on this day” memory come up on the very same day that I started jotting down my notes for this article; it turned out that on that day four years ago, I was laid off from a job as well.

Losing your job is always a scary proposition. Very few people (that I know of) wants to be unemployed.  There’s a great deal of uncertainty.  Questions enter your mind; among others: “how long will I be out of work?”  “How will I pay the bills?”  “How will I get by?”

Having been there and done that, I empathize with people who find themselves jobless.  For those of you who find themselves in such a situation, here are some tidbits that helped me through these tough times.

  • Above everything else, control your emotions.  When you lose your job, your emotions run wild.  Most likely, you (understandably) get scared, depressed, angry, frustrated, and so on.  The worst thing you can do is lose control of yourself.  If you need to do so, find a safe way to blow off steam and keep your feelings in check.  It isn’t healthy to keep those emotions bottled up, but at the same time, it is absolutely critical that you keep your head on your shoulders.  Find a healthy way to get those feelings out of your system, but don’t let those feelings control you.
  • Keep a positive attitude.  It is very easy to get down on yourself when you lose a job.  Strangely, the last time I lost my job, I actually felt invigorated.  I looked at it as an opportunity.  It wasn’t so much that I’d lost my employment as much as I was being offered a chance to try something new.  I wrote a while back that a positive attitude can be a powerful thing.  Rather than dwelling in what was, focus on what might be.
  • Take advantage of your free time.  A friend of mine who’d lost his job at one point told me that he took advantage of his suddenly-acquired free time to spend time with his family, play golf, and do things he didn’t have time to do because he was at work.  While he did focus efforts on his job hunt, he also made it a point to balance his time between searching for a job and having fun — which brings me to another thought…
  • Looking for a job is a full-time job.  Back in the good-old “answering help wanted newspaper ad” days, quantity was quality (there might be some recruiters who disagree with me on this, but I digress).  I am, admittedly, old school, so a part of me still subscribes to this mindset.  There were job hunts where I averaged about ten applications a day.  There’s also doing your homework — researching companies and potential employers, sizing them (and yourself — again, more on that in a minute) up, getting addresses, making phone calls, polishing your resume and your cover letters, and so on.  That makes for a lot of time and effort, and it will tire you out.  Make the time for your job hunt endeavors — but don’t forget to balance your life as well.
  • Find something to hold you over.  No, flipping burgers isn’t sexy, but it’s a source of income.  Even minimum wage is better than, say, zero (and it might also be better than unemployment benefits, which, in my experience, usually pays squat).  There is no shame in taking a temp job to hold you over until you land on your feet again.
  • Get involved, and keep yourself busy.  Number one, it’ll get your mind off your situation.  Number two, it’s a chance for you to network (again, I’ll expand on that in a bit).  Number three, you might learn something new that would make you marketable.  For more thoughts on getting involved, check out my article on getting involved with user groups, as well as an article I wrote about using your skill set for speaking at conferences.
  • Be honest with yourself.  When I started getting down on myself about my job situation, I asked myself a few questions, including: “where do my strengths lie,” “what am I capable of doing,” and “what do I really want to do?”  I identified my own skill sets and my interests; this, in turn, helped me identify positions for which I was qualified, as well as developing my own professional persona that helped me with interview skills.
  • Be creative.  As part of my job search, as well as a tool for networking, I created business cards for myself.  However, these were no ordinary business cards.  I remembered a scene in Mr. Baseball where Tom Selleck’s character learned that Japanese businessmen networked by exchanging business cards.  He gave them his baseball card.  That got me thinking: “Business card…  baseball card…” and I put the two together.  The result is what you see in the picture below.
    raysbizcardpic
    My networking business card

    The picture is a souvenir photo I got on a trip to Cooperstown (they dressed you up in the uniform of your choice and took your picture with a stadium backdrop).  I took that photo and made it into the business card you see above.  The back side has my contact information, and inside (it’s a folded card) contains a mini-resume with my career information.  I always get great reactions from people when I hand these out; someone even once said to me, “if I was in a position to hire, I’d hire you right now just because of this card!”  People will remember you, and it makes a great conversation piece.

    You don’t have to come up with a baseball-business card (hey, my idea, darn it!), but by all means, tap into your creativity to get yourself noticed!

  • Network, network, network!  Did I mention that you should network?  These days, networking is probably the best way to find a job.  Someone who knows of a job opening can probably tell you about it long before the open position becomes public knowledge.  That extra time could very well be your foot in the door.
  • Take advantage of available resources.  In this day and age of communication, you have no excuse not to make use of social media.  LinkedIn is specifically designed for professionals, and many online resources (including and especially job-hunt and networking resources) ask if you have a LinkedIn account.  If you’re looking, you can’t afford not to have an account.  While Facebook isn’t specifically geared toward professional networking, it is still another resource you can tap.
  • Don’t limit yourself.  Would you consider moving or taking a job outside your geographic area?  Would you consider working from home?  What about a different line of work?  Would you work part-time, odd hours, or a contract position?  If you’re in a jobless situation, you may very well need to keep your options open.

These are just some of my thoughts regarding surviving a jobless situation.  Did I miss anything, or do you disagree with any of my thoughts?  Feel free to comment below.

On memorization

About a week ago, I got a text from a friend saying that she was taking up the accordion again.  (If said friend is reading this, I didn’t know you played the accordion!)  Knowing that I have a background as a classical pianist, she asked me my advice on how to memorize music.  I told her I was going to respond in an email with my thoughts, but thinking that those thoughts would also be helpful to others, it became fodder for yet another ‘blog article.

I used to teach IT and mathematics classes part-time for a small business school in Albany.  For most of those classes, I made my exams open-book, open-note.  I cited a number of reasons for doing so — among them, I didn’t want them to suffer exam anxiety, and I wanted them to develop teamwork skills (I told them they were allowed to help each other figure out answers, but were not allowed to give or receive answers).

I also told them that I believed in the ability to research answers, and I didn’t believe in rote memorization.  For one thing, as I told my students, when you’re out in the real world, how many employers are going to tell you to “put all your notes away; you’re going to work on this project completely from memory”?  For another, I believe that rote memorization is ineffective.  I strongly believe it is a horrible way to learn material.  Memorizing facts and buzzwords isn’t the same as knowing how to use them, and it’s definitely not the same as learning the material.  You can memorize an entire dictionary, but unless you know how to put words together to develop sentences, thoughts, and ideas, it isn’t going to do you a lot of good.

Additionally, even if you do try to memorize something, it will never be perfect.  We are human, after all, and our capacity to remember is limited.  I’ve often thought about memories from years ago, thinking that I remember every detail, only to come across a picture of that memory, and realize that it wasn’t as accurate as I remembered.

“Okay,” you might be asking, “but you have music experience.  What about all those classical pieces you’re required to perform note for note?”

Ah, yes.  Let’s talk about that, shall we?

Let’s talk about memorizing music.  First, I am not Lang Lang, or Yo Yo Ma, or Yefim Bronfman.  Despite my significant music background, I am not a professional musician.  So I won’t pretend to know how professional classical concert musicians learn and memorize new pieces of music.  Instead, I’ll talk about how I approach it.

I play the piano in church on Sunday mornings.  There are a number of pieces that I’ve gotten to know so well that I don’t use sheet music for them.  I remember one parish member talking to me about how I would “memorize” those pieces.  However, “memorize” is not an accurate term.  A better way to put it is that I’ve gotten to know the pieces, and am able to use chord progressions and patterns that fit them — in a way, I can “color” them at will.

Let me put this another way.  Most of us know how the song “Happy Birthday” goes.  But did you memorize it?  Most likely, you didn’t.  You recognize it, you remember it, and you can sing it.  But you didn’t memorize it (at least not in the sense that most of us think).  Think about your favorite music artist, or your favorite songs.  You probably know all the words.  You can probably sing (or at least hum) every song down to the last note.  But would you say that you “memorized” them?  You might be able to say you did.  But I don’t think that is the right term here (to be honest, I don’t know what the right term is).  Them same holds true for when I’m playing music.  The difference is, when I’m playing the piano, my output is through my fingers, rather than my voice.

When I’m practicing a piece, I’ll usually learn it a few measures at a time.  I’ll continually practice those few measures until I get them right (or at least something close to it).  Once I have them down to a level to which I’m satisfied, I’ll move onto the next few measures.

When you practice an instrument, it isn’t so much thinking about memorizing music.  It’s more about muscle memory.  Practicing means developing your muscles so that they’re used to it, and you can do it again.

Ask yourself this: when you’re preparing music for performance, does it have to be exactly like the notes on a page?  Unless you’re performing a classical (or a similar type of) piece that requires a great deal of precision and technique, in many cases, the answer is, probably not.

A friend of mine once asked me to accompany a show for which she was the music director.  I wasn’t the first person she asked; she had another accompanist before me.  However, she had to fire him.  My predecessor absolutely insisted on playing every single note as precisely written, and it was slowing down the process of everyone else learning the show.  When she brought me on board, I made it a point to learn the music as best as I could, and ad lib everything, much as a jazz musician would follow a fake book (which, when I’m not learning a classical piece, is pretty much how I approach most music, anyway).  In my approach, I was able to provide a good accompaniment, I was able to help others with their music, and we pulled off a very successful show.

Personally, I find it a lot of fun trying to put my own spin on music.  I take it as a challenge trying to take a piece of music I like and making it sound as close to the original as I can.  It usually doesn’t, but that’s okay; I’m a big believer in not trying to make a piece of music sound exactly like the original.  I’ve often said that what people should really do is take a piece of music and make it theirs.  Every artist is different, and every artist will put their own spin on a piece of music.

So in all honesty, I believe that memorization isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be.  Just work on it as best as you can, reproduce it as best as you can, and enjoy your own interpretation of it.  You might find that what you produce is much more rewarding.

Keeping up with the Jones (or Gates, or Zuckerbergs…)

In the fast-moving world of technology, it is increasingly important to keep up with technological trends.  What was state of the art a few years ago may already be obsolete now.

I’ve been working in technology since I graduated college many years ago.  I started my professional career as a lowly computer operator, overseeing Informix database backups and working with SCSI drives (that’s “small computer system interface” for those of you who are wondering; I’m not even sure that SCSI is used anymore).  Each of these drive devices was about the size of a desktop PC or even a server.  I don’t remember how much data capacity they held, but I do remember that we did not measure it in GB.

I remember at the time when we took delivery of a one-gigabyte (for emphasis, that’s 1 GB — as in 1024 MB) tape drive that we were going to use for data backups.  We used to take these tiny cassettes, hold them in our hand, and joke, “in my hand, I am holding the Library of Congress.”

My, how times have changed since then.

For me, personally, I’ve had a more difficult time with keeping up with current trends as I get older.  For example, this past year, I was made aware of a relatively new data language called R.  If you’re a data professional, it’s likely something that you’d want to learn (again, there’s that theme about keeping up with trends).  There is a large number of technologies that are getting better, and it is impossible to keep up with all of them.

So how does one keep up with the times?

Personally, I’ve always had a knack for adapting to my environment; it is what has allowed me to survive professionally for so long.  I had been working as a developer for a few years, but when I realized that I was having a difficult time keeping up, I accepted a transition to a different department and a different role last year.  (For those of you who are curious, my role is difficult to describe in three words or fewer; I’ve largely been telling people that my new role is as a “programmer/analyst.”)  Among other things, I had an honest conversation with myself, asking myself what I really wanted to do, what my strengths were, and what I was capable of doing.  My new role better leverages my strengths, and I’ve been busier (and more content) than I’d been in a while.

(It also helps that I consider myself a team player.  When I was offered this role, I was asked if I was okay with it.  My response: “I play for the team.  Whatever you guys need from me, I’ll do.”)

A while back, I wrote about how important it was to get involved with user groups.  I do think it’s important to get involved with things, especially as we get older.  It enables us to learn new things, it’s a great way to network, and it’s a lot of fun.

Change is inevitable.  We need to acknowledge that we are changing, and we need to acknowledge that the world around us is changing.  It is for that reason why we need to stay on top of advancements if we want to survive — both professionally, and personally.

So you’re probably asking, “why don’t you write?”

“Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans…”
— John Lennon, “Beautiful Boy”

“Waiting for the break of day; searching for something to say; flashing lights against the sky; giving up, I close my eyes…”
— Chicago, “25 Or 6 To 4”

No, I haven’t dropped off the face of the earth.

I haven’t been as prolific with my ‘blog entries as I would like.  To be honest, life and various commitments got in the way — as it happens with most people.  And when I have had free time, writing has been the farthest thing from my mind.  Sometimes, things happen.

So stay tuned.  All things eventually settle down.  And when that happens, you’ll hear from me again!