Category Archives: Observations

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

Not to complain, but…

It was one of those days.

My wife and kids went on a road trip that morning — I was to be a bachelor for the next two-and-a-half days. “Have fun,” Tracey said. “What are you going to do? Watch TV? Read? Whatever you do, have fun.”

Without a reason to head home, I worked a little late. Turns out, a little too late — I missed my train, and the next one didn’t leave for an hour. I grabbed a bite and headed back to the train station . . . only to find the next train was delayed. A hundred of my closest friends and I got to hang out and wait (in sweltering heat, did I mention it was hot?) for our ride home. I wouldn’t get home until after 9, the evening was shot.

This is precisely not the time to tweet.

But sometimes, it’s like we can’t help it — when the ball doesn’t bounce our way on random, meaningless things, once, twice, a few times, suddenly it’s a “bad” day. Woe is me.

Ten years ago, you have a day like this and maybe you call a friend to pass the time, or silently fume and wait it out. Now, we have social media — where any random thought stays in your brain only for as long as it takes to type it out to your friends and followers.

We use these channels to say our train is late. Or airport security is annoying. Or you’re stuck in traffic, you’re having a bad hair day, and the weather sucks.

I assume we share these things because we’re in need of some empathy. A small bump in the road makes us want to see if a friend can lend an ear, tell us everything will be OK, and raise our spirits.

But really: What’s to be gained by grousing about, well, life? Facebook and Twitter can be avenues to share things that will help someone grow or think. To share something meaningful, profound, or funny.

Maybe that’s why a platform like Instagram is so popular: pictures can’t really be snarky or gossipy.

“There are two kinds of things a person can say: helpful things, and hurtful things.” The subtitle of this blog comes from a grade-school teacher of one of my all-time favorite people, John Williams. It’s a great line because it’s simple and true.

Here’s to applying it in the social media age. Let’s aim for better.

Sticking with it

My wife’s cousin Tony has three kids — a daughter who is a high-school senior and twin boys who are 11. Not only do these kids love playing soccer, they are ridiculously good at it.

No: they are¬†extraordinarily good at it. She was scouted throughout her junior year, and an athletic scholarship is all but certain. Most weekends, the boys travel to other states for tournaments. They always win. I use the word “always” without blinking. They’ve practiced with Chicago’s professional soccer team. One of them is just back from training with an English professional team for a couple of weeks this summer.

I mentioned the boys are 11, right?

All of the kids are as sweet as can be. They just happen to be beasts on the soccer field.

Well, that can’t quite be true — this doesn’t just “happen.” My seven-year-old son, Jacob, likes playing soccer, but I don’t expect he’ll just “happen” to start winning national championships in two years like the twins.

We caught up with them over a family Fourth of July party. While the kids played (yes, soccer), my wife started peppering Tony about what we could do to help Jake get better. He basically gave three answers:

  1. Focus. Don’t practice by shooting at a big ol’ soccer goal — aim for smaller targets, like laid-down garbage cans. Anybody can shoot at a big goal, but if you work on precision, you’ll up your overall game.
  2. Consistency. Practice often. Even if you only have five minutes one day, that’s an opportunity to practice. If you want it bad enough, you’ll keep at it and make the most of the time you have.
  3. Rewards. Set a goal — say, juggling a ball ten times — and when you get there, a reward. And up the challenge for next time: juggle the ball 25 times. You know it can be done, you’ll work hard to achieve it — and be rewarded for it. And it’s far more encouraging to focus on accomplishments than to dwell on failures.

As we drove home, we were excited for Jacob. It’s a simple plan, really. He likes soccer, and he’ll like it even more when he’s that much better at it.

But a short while later, it dawned on me: What we really talked about was how to get better at something.

This idea of improving seemed like an appropriate conversation for a child learning soccer.

But why wouldn’t it apply to adults? Don’t we also need to improve?

Wouldn’t this be a game plan for me to learn how to play guitar, or hone a work skill, or (finally!) start exercising?

. . .

In the ten days since, Jacob and I have practiced once. This is my first blog post in a week. I haven’t exercised at all.

But each day is chance to start. I set my alarm so I’d make sure to write. Our garbage was collected yesterday, so the cans happen to be empty on a beautiful, sunny day — a perfect day to focus on accomplishments instead of dwelling on failures.

We start today. And we stick with it tomorrow.





When life gives you coffee beans…

I absolutely, positively cannot stand coffee.

Once, in a meeting with my boss, I had to excuse myself because I’d bitten into a coffee-flavored Jelly Belly.

Another time, I was to lead a meeting at Starbucks, where they start every day-long session with a coffee tasting. I convinced myself I would love this special new blend they were allowing us to preview. To this day, I fear someone there saw me nearly throw up.

It’s coffee I can’t stand. But Starbucks stores, I like. It’s a community. It’s warm and inviting. It has free wi-fi. It is very much, as CEO Howard Schultz likes to say, “a third place.”

What's missing from this receipt?

Not your typical Starbucks receipt.

So I go there quite a bit — in the winter, for apple cider or hot chocolate. But during a crazy hot summer like this one, I’ll pop in for a donut or pastry. Only.

“Are you sure you don’t want anything to drink with that?”

The baristas view my donut-only order as an insult. They often ask twice — maybe because they have to, but it comes across as I must not have understood their question, or perhaps I don’t realize I’m at Starbucks. In some ways, it’s my inside joke: I’m the nutjob who never gets coffee.

But this week, something different happened.

The first barista handed me my donut, and learned I didn’t want coffee. The cashier heard this, made the “Really?!” face . . . then smiled.

“Well, thank you for choosing us for your donut needs. I know you have many other places to choose from, it’s nice you picked us.”

We both laughed a little, because it could have been an entirely ridiculous thing to say. But she was genuine in saying it, and I was grateful to hear it. My inside joke was forever changed.

It was just a nice little lesson: Are you looking for the things to appreciate in someone? How can you make them feel welcome? And, perhaps most importantly, have you considered Starbucks for your donut needs?

Yoda had it wrong

“Do or do not. There is no try.”

I get it, Jedi Master, but I’m not so sure I believe it.

There are times when I work my tail off, goal in mind, with a clear path to succeed. But sometimes, I’ve set unreasonable expectations, or not enough time, or maybe just unexpected stuff gets in the way.

For most of my life, I’d beat myself up over falling short like that. “The effort doesn’t matter,” I’d think, “only the end result.” A stern lecture from my inner Yoda.

But when it came time for my latest personal test, I thought I’d go a little easier on myself. If you’ve ever met me, it’s been in one of these three situations: I had a can of pop in my hand; I had a can waiting on my desk or table; or I was on my way to get some pop. I don’t drink coffee, but I drink enough soda that a friend once told me that when I said I was drinking water, she assumed I really meant I was having a Coke. I used to drink so much Vault, it looked like they sponsored me.

Four months of pop tops.

Flipping my lids from February-May.

For four months this year, I kept tabs (literally) on how much I was drinking. And on Memorial Day, I decided I would — not quit, entirely, but scale way back. I would try. I would not go cold turkey.

I went five headache-filled days before cracking open a can. And then another four after that. A little more than a month into this test, I’ve had a total of nine. Yoda wouldn’t call this a victory, but I sure do. Here’s why:

This week, as an early morning conference call was kicking off, a co-worker in a remote office mentioned he hadn’t had his coffee yet, and asked if I’d had my Coke. When I told him I was cutting back, he said something like, “Oh, I tried that once. I made it one day, and then I cracked.” And he’s back to however much coffee he was drinking before.

He viewed it as a failure. Isn’t there enough pressure, enough imperfection in our lives that we can allow ourselves some gray area? This is exactly why I’m on the “cut way back” plan instead of ¬†going cold turkey. It’s an occasional treat — or, yes, a relief — to pop open a can. But I can say I’m having about two cans a week instead of two a day, and that feels like a giant win. My glass (of water) is half-full. That helps keep me motivated.

I understand I’ll never make it as a Jedi, but I think I’ll be happy just the same.