Paying it forward

Once upon a time, I wanted to be the rockstar in pretty much anything and everything I did, whether it was my job, my extracurricular activities, or my relationships.  I wanted the glory and the recognition.  More importantly, I wanted to be respected for whatever I did.  In my youth, I thought that demonstrating that I was good at whatever I did was the path to glory.

But now that I’m older, that perspective has changed.  I no longer need (or, sometimes, even want) to be the rockstar.  These days, I get a great deal of satisfaction out of helping someone else become the rockstar. While I still try to perform well in whatever I do, it’s more important to me to help everyone around me be better.

This has become a passion of mine. It’s why I’m so passionate about speaking at SQL Saturday. It’s why I take such an interest in technical communication, writing, training, and mentoring. It’s why I continually encourage people to be better. It’s even one of the major reasons why I maintain my ‘blog. While it’s important to make myself better in whatever I do, I think it’s also equally important to make people around you better as well.

I’ve had a number of opportunities to give something back. For the past couple of years, I’ve taken part in a program by my alma mater, Syracuse University, specifically the College of Engineering and Computer Science (ECS).  They sponsor a “job shadow” program in which current students are paired with alumni working in various industries. The program typically takes place during winter break, between the fall and spring semesters.

Unfortunately, I work in a data-secure office, so an office shadow tends to be out of the question. (I don’t think students would really be interested in seeing me sit at a desk all day, anyway.)  In lieu of a job shadow, the university suggests other ways to interact with students — over a cup of coffee, lunch, and so on. For the past couple of years, I’ve offered to take students out to dinner. It offers a nice, relaxed atmosphere to chat, not to mention that, since I usually don’t have any commitments after dinner, I’m not constrained by time; I don’t have to worry about being back in the office by a certain time.

I’ve found numerous other ways to pay it forward. During one unemployment stint, I found a part-time position as an instructor at a local business school to hold myself over. I discovered that I enjoyed teaching so much that, even after I found gainful full-time employment, I continued with the teaching job for a few more years. I am heavily involved with my local SQL user group. By giving back to my user group, I can help other people with the same interests. I also wrote a while back about some of my networking activities in which I was able to give back. When you network, you have multiple avenues in which you can pay it forward.

As an old saying goes, a rising tide lifts all boats. Improvement doesn’t just mean making yourself better. It also means making everyone around you better as well. When you help other people succeed, then we all succeed.

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Want to get ahead? Don’t get comfortable

“Moving me down the highway, rolling me down the highway, moving ahead so life won’t pass me by…”
— Jim Croce, “I Got A Name”

“It’s important to be able to make mistakes.  If you don’t make mistakes, it means you’re not trying.”
— Wynton Marsalis

“Don’t look back.  Something might be gaining on you.”
— Satchel Paige

“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
— unknown

Late last Friday afternoon, our manager stopped by our workspace for a chat.  Some of it was just small talk, but he also wanted to give us a reminder of something, which is what I want to write about here.  I don’t remember his exact words, but the gist of what he said went something like this.

“We want you to develop personally and professionally,” he said (or something to that effect).  “The way you do that is to take on tasks that you know nothing about.  Volunteer to do things you wouldn’t typically volunteer.  If you see a support ticket, don’t worry about looking to see whether or not you know what it is or if you know how to handle it.  Just take the responsibility.  That’s how you develop.  If you want to move ahead, you need to step out of your comfort zone.”

Indeed, these are words to live by, and it isn’t the first time I’ve heard this.  I have had countless experiences where I’ve been told that I need to step out of my comfort zone in order to improve.  In my music experiences, especially in my ensemble performance experience, I’ve often been told by good music directors that I need to attempt playing challenging passages to get better.  When I first started doing CrossFit, one question we were asked was, “would you rather be comfortable or uncomfortable?”  The point was that in order to get better, some discomfort would be involved.  I also remember one of the points of emphasis back when I took a Dale Carnegie course; each week would involve stepping a little more out of our comfort zone.  We would do this gradually each week until we reached a point where we had drastically improved from where we had started.

Falling into a rut is common, and while it happens in all different facets of life, it is especially easy to do in the workplace.  Sometimes, the work environment can slow down, and you have a tendency to fall into a routine.  I’ve had this happen more often than I want to admit, and more often than not, I’m not even aware that I’m doing it.  Every once in a while, a pep talk or some kind of a jolt (such as a kick in the butt — whether it’s from someone else or myself) reminds me that I need to branch out and try new things if I want to get (and stay) ahead.  I am well-aware that I need to step out of my comfort zone to get ahead, but I am also the first to admit that I will sometimes forget about this, myself.

Too often, I see people who fall into ruts themselves, and who have no desire to step out of their comfort zones.  As much as I try to tell these people to at least try to do something about it, they insist on remaining where they are.  These people strive for mediocrity, which is a major pet peeve of mine, and something for which I have no tolerance or respect.  People want to remain in their “happy place,” but what I don’t understand is how these same expect to get ahead, yet refuse to leave their comfort zones to do it.  These people will be stuck in a rut forever, and they have no right to complain about it.

Everyone has a dream, or at least some kind of goal they want to achieve.  The fact is, if you want to reach that goal, or at least take steps toward it (whether you reach it or not), you need to get uncomfortable to do it.

The CrossFit family

The other day, a thought popped into my head for no reason (that happens occasionally — doesn’t it happen to you?): “I feel like hanging out with my CrossFit family.”  I don’t know why I started thinking about it, but I was thinking about the great times I’ve had hanging out with my CrossFit friends outside of the gym — bowling night, playing poker to raise money for charity, going out to dinner, and so on.  I’ve been a member of my CrossFit gym for over three years (and counting) now, and I’ve made a lot of great friends in the process.  Who would’ve thought that I, a longtime self-admitted couch potato, would happily be spending his free time hanging with a bunch of athletes at a gym?

Ever since I started doing CrossFit, I’ve heard a lot of people refer to “their CrossFit family.”  This term, much less, concept, is nothing new.  Among all my activities, I’ve heard references to “my music family,” “band family,” “SQL family,” and so on.  As it’s been often said, “family” is more than flesh and blood; it’s about people to whom you’ve gotten close and learned to trust.  We as social animals thrive on these relationships.

The fact that I’ve managed to stick to a fitness program for more than three years is a huge deal, and I believe that the support system — all these friends I’ve made — is a big part of that.  A support system of friends can make almost anything pleasurable.  I’ve met a lot of great people in CrossFit, and one of the big things is that these people make me want to go to the gym.  When you have great friends and a solid support system around you, anything is possible.

Reflections, setbacks, and accomplishments

“Here’s to the new year.  May she be a damn sight better than the old one, and may we all be home before she’s over.”
— Col. Sherman T. Potter

“We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things, because we’re curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.”
— Walt Disney

“All I want from tomorrow is to get it better than today…”
— Bruce Hornsby (or Huey Lewis, depending on which version you prefer…)

It is the week between Christmas and New Year’s.  I have the week off from work as I write this, which gives me plenty of time to think.  Okay, granted, I haven’t been doing a lot of thinking — or very much else, for that matter — during this past week.  Everyone, after all, needs to take some time to rest and relax.  So, I’ll be the first to confess that, while I should probably take advantage of the week to take care of tasks I can’t normally do because of work, a good chunk of it has been spent watching TV, especially old movies, college football, and college basketball.

Nevertheless, now that 2017 is coming to a close, I did take a few moments — well, at least long enough to write this article, anyway — to look upon this past year, and to think about what’s ahead.  Among other things: I celebrated a milestone birthday back in January (hey, I made it to another one!), I lost one job and picked up another (better one!) in a short amount of time, I’m being recognized for accomplishments in my new job, I spoke at four more SQL Saturdays (including a couple of new presentations), I’ve made new friends, I’ve gotten better at CrossFit (among my CrossFit accomplishments, I successfully completed this year’s Holiday Rowing Challenge), and (if you count this article), I’ve written thirty-five ‘blog articles this year.  (That’s almost three a month, for those of you who are keeping count.)

Of course, life is about yin and yang; for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.  I’d be lying if I said this year was all wine and roses; I’ve had my share of setbacks as well.  Nobody enjoys setbacks; they can be painful and embarrassing.  But they’re important as well.  You can’t have good without bad, happiness without sadness, joy without pain.  But setbacks also serve a purpose: they remind us that we are not perfect (hey, nobody’s perfect, and since I’m nobody…!) and that no matter how well we perform, there is always room for improvement.

So now that 2018 is around the corner, keep moving ahead.  Make it better than 2017!

Happy (insert name of your favorite holiday)

There’s a meme that goes around Facebook, usually around the holiday season.  I’ve commented on this on Facebook before, but I thought it was worthwhile to put this into a ‘blog article.

The meme appears in many different ways, but the gist of it goes something like this: “If you’re Christian, feel free to wish me Merry Christmas.  If you’re Jewish, feel free to wish me Happy Chanukah.  If you’re African-American, feel free to wish me Joyous Kwanzaa.  If you’re something else, feel free to wish me holiday greetings in whatever your beliefs or culture allow, or simply wish me Happy Holidays.  I won’t be offended.  I’ll be happy that you took the time to say something nice to me.”

I agree with the sentiment 100%, but I also want to take it a step further.

We are a multicultural world, with many points of view, religions, beliefs, and mores.  What might be strange to one culture might be everyday life in another.  Many of us enjoy traveling to exotic countries and cultures, mostly to experience other worlds that aren’t our own.  As foreign travelers, we want to know what it’s like to be part of that culture.  Visitors to Hawai’i, for example, want to receive leis, eat poi and poke, wear Hawaiian shirts, and learn to play the ukulele.  (By the way, one thing I learned from my Hawai’i trip several years ago is that the correct pronunciation is OO-ku-lay-lay, not YOU-ku-lay-lay.)  I think this is a good and healthy thing; it allows us to understand, experience, and appreciate what it’s like to be part of something that is not our own.  This, in turn, enhances our knowledge and understanding of each other.  And when we’re accepted into the culture, it makes us feel pretty good.

I regularly say, “feel free to wish me a Happy (whatever your preferred holiday is).  Not only will I not be offended, I will actually be flattered that you think enough of me to wish me well from the standpoint of your culture, religion, more, or belief.”

I’ve had deeply religious people tell me they’d “pray for me” (and I do NOT mean in a spiteful or sarcastic way) or ask me if “I would pray with them.”  Granted, I am not a religious person; although I do attend church, I consider myself more spiritual than religious.  But when I get asked this, I have absolutely no problem with it (in fact, I’ll join them more often than not).  Even though my beliefs are not necessarily the same as theirs, being invited to join them makes me feel pretty good.  And taking part acknowledges that I respect their belief.

So if you happen to see me around the holidays, feel free to wish me a Merry Christmas, Happy Chanukah, Joyous Kwanzaa, Happy Diwali, Ramadan Kareem, Peace to You, Live Long and Prosper, Happy Holidays, or whatever you prefer.  I will thank you for it!  After all, sending happy greetings and best wishes to another person is what it’s all about, regardless of what you believe.

Blind spots

“All I want from tomorrow is to get it better than today…”
— Bruce Hornsby (or Huey Lewis — whomever you prefer)

“You’re only human; you’re allowed to make your share of mistakes…”
— Billy Joel

One of my favorite books is The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks.  For the benefit of those of you who’ve never read it (spoiler alert: if you’ve never read it and want to, I suggest you stop reading this paragraph and move to the next one, because what I’m about to say doesn’t get revealed until near the end of the book), the book involves a magic sword that has the ability to reveal truth.  When the sword’s magic is invoked, both the wielder and the recipient are forced to confront the truth.

There are many times that I wish I had a Sword of Shannara.  I can think of many people who would benefit from its magical power.  And I put myself at the top of that list.

An incident that occurred last night served to remind me of the blind spots that I have.  I don’t care to talk about the incident (the details aren’t important here, anyway), except that I felt as though I’d taken a big step backwards.  It’s not the first time that I’ve taken a step back, and as much as I try to avoid it, I suspect that it will likely not be the last.

We all have blind spots; it’s a part of being human.  More often than not, we aren’t aware that those blind spots are there — hey, there’s a reason why they’re called “blind” spots.  There is no magic sword to reveal those blind spots.  The best mirror we have for those blind spots is each other, in how we behave and react around one another.  If someone is smiling, laughing, or nodding his or her head around you, you’re probably doing something right.  If that person is frowning, yelling, or criticizing, then probably not.

As much as we try to do our best, inevitably, we will stumble somewhere down the line.  I admit that I’m probably still dwelling on it — I probably wouldn’t be writing this article, otherwise.  I’ll eventually get over it.  All we can do is to recognize our blind spots — once we recognize that they’re there — keep an open mind, learn from our mistakes, and keep moving forward.

“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.