Category Archives: Observations

Some of those random thoughts where we’ll see if other people see things the same way.

The most important thing in life

Years ago, I heard someone — I think it was a stand-up comedian — say that he knew what was the most important thing in life:

“The unexpected.”

At the time, his explanation made sense: If you woke up in the morning and knew exactly what you were going to get out of the day, you might not bother. Knowing a good day was on tap would take away some of the adrenaline rush when it actually happened. If you knew it’d be a bad one, well, you’d want to stay under the covers.

Not sure why this has stuck with me for so long. But I remember when I realized he was wrong, because I recognized what the most important thing actually was:

Hope.

And I wanted to debate this long-forgotten comedian/philosopher about my revelation, convinced that it’s the possibility of good that actually gets people moving and inspires them to be the human beings we all know and love.

I’m glad that didn’t happen, because a couple of weeks ago, I came up with a new answer.

Belief.

Hope is important of course; but in some ways it’s transient. We can hope for meaningful, noble things… but we can digress into hoping for warmer weather or that we hit all the green lights on our commute.

What really gets us out of bed in the morning, without hitting snooze and maybe without an alarm at all, is belief. We don’t just cling to a wish that it will be a good day; we’re empowered to make it so. Conviction that we can serve as a good parent or citizen. Belief that a relationship or cause is worth dedicating ourselves to. Confidence that the work we do is meaningful and making a difference.

Of course, belief can be based in spirituality. I remember being invited to a church group’s awards dinner 20-some years ago. Technically, I was an adult at the time, but I felt aimless and ungrounded listening to a couple of teenagers give witness to their belief and blessings from God. Their passion was unwavering and clear.

Based in religion or elsewhere, to have that kind of fire within — to know something is so valuable to you, that an internal force is constantly guiding you — is what matters most. It can’t be manufactured or faked. True belief is authentic, real, and palpable.

When it’s missing, you can’t make up for it. We all know someone who is going through the motions because they’re missing a sense of purpose.

But each and every one of us has something to offer the world; it’s just a matter of finding the trigger to unleash that power. Think about the people in your life who are on a mission, to the point that it is what defines them to you. They’re driven and won’t stop.

That kind of belief is a blessing. It needs to be cultivated and fed to sustain us for today and the next day and the next. When we believe, we’re unstoppable.

What do you believe in?

More than a game

A big week in sports, with three super-major accomplishments: The Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup, Golden State beat the LeBrons for the NBA title, and my son Jake’s team scored seven runs in the bottom of last inning for a 12-11 tournament win.

Man, do I love sports. The players, the stories, the adrenaline rush — it’s all good. My family’s typically not so into it, but as the Blackhawks clinched Game 6, I realized we were all on the couch cheering them on.

We were looking at jubilant players and raucous fans as I explained the traditions of the Cup and the playoffs in general. It was late and the kids were a little slap-happy, and I found myself frustrated they weren’t treating this moment with the reverence it deserved. This was the presentation of Lord Stanley’s Cup! This is honor and history — not, as Jacob put it, “a big silver wine glass.”

But if you’re ten years old, that’s exactly what it is. It’s a funny-shaped silver mug that bearded men lift over their heads as they skate around, having just played a game.

So when, and why, does that change? Why do sports mean so much to so many people?

Because they end.

Sport seasons are finite. They have a defined amount of time — whether we’re talking a game, a season, a tournament — to achieve a goal. There’s a defined set of rules to succeed. They win or they lose.

As fans, we’re passionate about the build-up and the drama around each phase, and we commit to it. We’re not even on the playing field. We find ourselves not just with favorite teams, but favorite players, rooting for their professional success, supporting them every chance we get. I will never meet Tramon Williams or Aaron Rodgers or Jordy Nelson, but that doesn’t stop me from having replica jerseys in my house. We identify with them.

You know who I don’t display that exuberance for? Me. Or my coworkers. That would be silly, right? I’ll see my coworkers tomorrow and the next day, always. Eventually they or even I may leave for new jobs, but the routine is ultimately the same: Forty- or fifty-some years of professional achievement, because that’s life, and that’s what we expect to happen every day for forever.

As a wise man once sang, forever’s a mighty long time. What if we consciously measured that time differently? What if we worked for a season, not the duration of our lives? What if we could look at a professional scoreboard and knew if we won or lost? Would we gear up for work differently, with better focus on the day-to-day? Could it make us more effective, working harder for shorter sprints? Would we need someone to root against as much as we need to cheer ourselves on? (Most importantly: Would we get jerseys? Of our co-workers?? Could I get a #47 Berrones home jersey?!)

We work as we live our lives, expecting there’s always a tomorrow. Sports teams can’t afford to do that.

And we love them for it.

Pedal down, grow up

Being a big fan of the Green Bay Packers, I love seeing stories that share a little bit of the behind-the-scenes stories of the players. I was just reminded of one, from 2012, as offensive lineman T.J. Lang had signed a big contract: $21 million to play football — for the Packers — for the next four years.

The article diplomatically explains how Lang — then all of 24 years old — struggled with the responsibilities of adulthood when he broke into the NFL just three years earlier.

“I was 21, living downtown, going out three, four nights a week sometimes,” Lang said…. “But looking back on it, I really didn’t understand why I was doing it. I didn’t think it was a problem back then, but looking back, it’s like I’m lucky to still be here.”

Clearly, he’s matured, as one of his coaches said:

“(Lang has) continued to put the pedal down, saying, `Look, I want to be darn good at this.'”

Maybe like any typical 21-year-old, Lang didn’t fully appreciate 1) the talents he had, and 2) the opportunity he’d been given. But by age 24, he’d become aware. He’s capitalizing on these things and reaping the rewards for it. The article helps me and all Packers fans celebrate a feel-good story.

Perhaps it’s also a moment to be self-reflective: Do I realize the opportunities I have? Or the talents I possess? And even if I do, will I continue to push the pedal down, driving myself to be the best I can be? It’s one thing to celebrate the success of a sports figure on your favorite team; it’s another entirely to dedicate yourself to grow and develop as a person and as a professional.

In 2014, T.J. Lang is coming off a season where Pro Football Focus ranked him as the 15th best guard in the league. There’s room to improve, but there’s reason to believe he’s up to the challenge, and I have a hunch that Lang will earn his second Super Bowl ring.

Meanwhile, 2014 marks the start of my 22nd year as a full-time professional. I want to recognize my talents, to create opportunities, to grow, to mature, and to win my own version of the Super Bowl.

Look, I want to be darn good at this.

Give the kid a break

I’m at Jacob’s baseball practice, his third in four days*, where the coach is hollering. “Ball up the middle, you have to cover second!” “Be in the ready position!” “Pay attention!”

To get here felt like moving mountains. “Do you have your jacket?!” “C’mon, you’re going to be late!” “Tie your shoes, let’s go!”

Before that, it was school. A big test in social studies. Who knows what new stuff came his way, while trying to make up work for two sick days last week.

Before that, it was getting ready for school. “Finish your breakfast, you’re going to be late.” “You gotta brush your teeth!” Dragging his butt out of bed.

Before that it was a night interrupted by his lingering cough, enough to ask Mom for help.

Before all that… was a day pretty much exactly like today. And the day before that, and the day before that.

Earlier today, I heard someone ask Jacob: “I’m just asking you a question, why are you getting all mad at me?”

Sometimes, I’m glad I’m not 8 years old.

*There was also a practice on day two, which he missed due to religious education classes. There’s also practice tomorrow.

The celebration within

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about positive and negative energy, wondering why it’s so easy for us to ignore the good and instead point at the bad or failed.

My job has me paying attention to big brands and their social media efforts, where misfires can become really, really big news. And the industry media *love* the failures. In just the last week, I’ve seen these headlines:

  • 10 Worst Social Media Marketing Fails of 2013
  • The Worst Advertising, Guerrilla Marketing and Social Media Screwups of November (on Twitter, the author billed this as the start of a regular, “weekly” story)
  • The Top 10 Corporate Social Media Disasters
  • Tweeting Bad: The AMA Edition (a semi-regular column featuring brand tweets around an event)

If I’m looking at the glass half-full, stories with these headlines could be useful if they’re sharing lessons: Here’s what you need to do to avoid a similar outcome. A helping hand to say, “Nobody should make the same mistake twice; let these folks have made it first for you.”

But that’s not the intent of these stories at all. It’s more like calling attention to a car crash. Whether a fender-bender or something more serious, it doesn’t matter, they just want you to look at how badly something went.

We see this behavior often: Magazines feature celebrities who look bad in bathing suits. The nightly news tells us everything that went wrong.

Why don’t we celebrate the successes more? Are they that much harder to define? Is it just that there’s less drama in them, so what’s the fun in that?

I came across this quote in John Maeda’s book, “Redesigning Leadership.” It’s not directly related to what I’m talking about, but it’s in the same neighborhood:

Taking an effort needs to be worth it simply for the internal sense of achievement. You must believe what you’re doing is making a positive impact, whether for yourself or others. The celebration comes from within.

Now, even with the best of intentions, that thing may not succeed. But you learn, and you move on to the next thing, even while critics spend their time hating on what you’ve done.

It’s just a shame there’s that negative contingent — whether it stems from jealousy, laziness, or spite — that feels the need to spotlight someone’s failed efforts. Seems it would take just as much energy to lend a helping hand as it would to knock someone down.

Expecting a miracle

Facebook already gives us so many ways to share — but I’m especially interested to see how their newest feature plays out.

We now have the option to post when we’re expecting a child.

Your Timeline encourages you to post major Life Events: When you married, when you bought a house, when you started a new job. It even suggests smaller Life Event options, like when you broke a bone, when you got a tattoo, or even when you had your braces removed.

But these are all past events. History.

Now, Timeline offers two forward-looking Life Event options: Organ Donor, and Expecting a Baby.

Facebook made an enormous deal of the Organ Donor option a few months back. After a couple of days of hyping a “major Facebook announcement,” Mark Zuckerberg himself unveiled the feature on Good Morning America, encouraging people to share their organ donation status to encourage conversation. People fell over themselves heaping praise on what a fantastic effort this was. More attention to organ donation could help save the lives of the 114,000 people waiting for a transplant.

And it is a noble effort.

But I wonder if “Expecting a Baby” could be even bigger, for reasons you might not expect.

One of the big mysteries to me is how, as a society, we don’t talk much about miscarriage — even though the numbers are staggering. In 2004, the CDC said there were 6.4 million pregnancies in the United States.

1.06 million ended in “fetal losses,” which is how they classify still births and miscarriages.

That’s astounding. One in six pregnancies end in a fetal loss.

It’s virtually never talked about. Many people wait until they’re 12 weeks pregnant to share their news with friends, because that’s when you’ve made it past the greatest risk of miscarriage. That skews the perception — it’s much more rare for a fetal loss after that point, so when you finally hear a friend is pregnant, it’s much more likely than 5-out-of-6 you’ll see baby pictures in a few months.

When a miscarriage happens in the first 12 weeks, it’s not just hell — it’s a private hell.

You grieve, you cry, you’re shell-shocked . . . and many of your friends don’t know. You never told them you were expecting — and now you’re dealing with a death.

And when you need it most, there’s no social protocol.

If an adult dies, you can make an announcement. People send flowers, attend a service, bake a casserole. They console.

When a miscarriage occurs, you . . . keep going. Most people you know didn’t know you were expecting a baby, and it doesn’t quite seem right to tell people about the passing of someone they never could have known. So you put on a good face and continue on, carrying around a now-darker secret, until you can cry your eyes out behind closed doors.

The most confusing part of this: When friends — and even acquaintances — know you’ve lost someone close to you, they offer tons of support. It’s a huge, helpful part of the grieving process. We all go through this, so we all understand that kind of pain.

Not everybody is affected by miscarriage. And those who are — well, you may not know who they are, because they also kept quiet about the early stages of their pregnancies.

And I understand it’s a stretch, but maybe, maybe some of that could change . . . thanks to Facebook.

Social networking makes it so easy to share our lives. Now we’re encouraged to share our most meaningful news with a couple of clicks.

And God forbid something should go wrong; but if it should, our Friends could offer support.

It might not be for everyone. But I’d bet it could help at least some of those 1.06 million people.

Now that’s funny

During my stint as a radio producer, I’d perfected what my wife calls it “the producer laugh.” Before callers would get on the air, they would have to share their stories with me. They were convinced they would regale the greater Chicago area. I was the gatekeeper, and many times, I knew they were wrong.

But I didn’t want anyone to leave empty-handed. I’d manufacture a belly laugh and tell them what a great, funny story that was . . . but it’s too bad those darn commercials were eating up all our time, or the segment had just ended, or it was time to do a test of the Emergency Broadcast System (but don’t worry, it was only a test).

This kind of response felt like a proper, professional requirement. It validated their effort, and encouraged them to keep listening and call back the next time (when, hopefully, a new story would make the cut).

I haven’t been a producer in more than seven years. But I can be in a conversation with my wife, let out a guffaw, and her face will turn serious with accusation: “Producer laugh.” She’s calling B.S. on how genuine my laugh is. Sometimes, she’s right; but sometimes I’m actually laughing, which tells me I’ve got a pretty good fake laugh.

But I had ten years of producerdom to hone that fake laugh, which was a conscious effort. Most people do not care about their fake laugh, or might not even recognize that they have one. But we all do.

We all say lots of things that are only a little funny. And it’s the socially acceptable thing to get a fake laugh back. It’s probably proper payment — you weren’t really funny, so you don’t deserve a real laugh. But it can’t just sit there; that would be really awkward. So we do one of two things:

Pity laugh. The awkward noise that wants to be a laugh, but instead comes across as a sound that translates to the typed words “ha ha.”

Say, “That’s funny.” This phrase Cracks. Me. Up. If it were genuinely funny, we’d laugh! We wouldn’t be able to help it. But we all have used this honest, if emotionless, phrase. It’s downright clinical: You have presented me with something you find amusing, and I hereby acknowledge your attempt.

I say something should be done about this. I had started calling people out on their pity laughs when they are egregious. Curiously, that often leads to real laughter — partly out of embarrassment, partly out of recognition that their pity laugh is pitiful.

But it’s not the answer. It doesn’t seem right to ask everyone to work on their fake laugh. Not responding at all would be tragic.

The only solution I can come up with: We need to be genuinely funnier. It’s our only hope.

Saving my iPhone battery — and my sanity

The day I got my iPhone was a blessing and a curse, all wrapped into one sleek package.

This was January 2010, so I was a little late to the game. But my refurbished 3GS made me a believer almost right off the bat — immediate access to social media, email, and games? Sold.

It also made me an addict.

Always, always on. I got the phone for work, so the many times I got busted using it at inappropriate times, I could simply say I had to check email. But in reality, email is the gateway drug: You check that, then you think maybe Twitter has an update, and of course Facebook is just a tap away . . .

A couple of years of annoying myself and others who wonder why I was always heads down. But that constantly updated number hovering over the email icon was intriguing and enticing and sexy — who’s writing me now? This could be urgent! How could I turn away?

Skip forward to a few weeks ago. Turns out I was also fighting a daily battle against my battery — it was all but used up by the end of the work day due to constant checking, heavy use during commutes, and working in a signal-challenged city.

I would often close my background apps, but that wasn’t much help. (Turns out that may be a myth, anyway.)

But then I found this article on saving battery life. Tip #4 was the eye-opener — to have an always-on email push would certainly be a drain on my battery. And besides, I spend 5/7 of my week at the office, where my laptop already tells me how far behind I’m getting on email. I changed over to manually fetch email.

If I recall correctly, that’s when a light shone down from the heavens.

First of all, it worked, and battery performance is remarkably better. But as importantly, this also means my email icon won’t update to show me how many new emails are waiting. And without that reminder that I’m always needed, I’m not constantly checking it.

Instead, I’m spending time with my family, or reading, or living life. When I know I have a few minutes, I can open the email app, which will update with new email, and I can respond to them on my terms.

Seems a little silly to feel like I’ve won a battle over my phone. But hey, it’s a smart phone. And while there are exceptions, there are many fewer weeknight interruptions when I’m playing with my kids or talking with my wife. Big win.

The change didn’t just make a dramatic impact on my battery life; it made an impact on MY life.