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Decided to read this again since the new organization I recently joined has had its challenges and is actively working through them. Interesting how I internalized more of the content this second time around since it’s more timely and relevant at this stage in my career. Unlike Patrick Lencioni’s other books which are more fable format, this was more of a traditional business book with practical tips and a roadmap to follow.
This day means different things to different people. Resurrection, life after death, hope, and miracles are first to come to mind. On the secular side, it’s an observed holiday that allows us time off work to spend with our family and friends. For me it means a little of all those things. It also got me thinking about something we don’t often connect with Easter…creativity.
When I think about it, creativity is a very subtle part of the holiday. It’s below the surface but it’s there. For example, there’s a creative aspect in the Lenten practice of giving something up in order to make room for something new. On a more common level, kids tend to be very creative when it comes to coloring Easter eggs. Then, of course, there’s the dramatic story of new life and hope that gave birth to a whole new religion.
I like to think of days like today as a day of quiet reflection. A day to be grateful for your blessings and to appreciate the everyday miracles around us. A day to take stock of who we’ve become and the kind of person we want to be…then make conscious decisions on how we’d like to bridge the gap. A great example has been set. If a humble carpenter can change the world, how can we follow in those footsteps? I don’t see a need to be as dramatic, or to expect transformation after only the third day. It’s a process and you can feel good about taking a single small step in the right direction.
Let’s take a break from the hustle and bustle of the everyday routine. Maybe make an effort to unplug. No checking email, Facebook or Twitter…self-contradictory as this post may be. Be with your family and friends. Be present and enjoy the moment. New life is embodied in this simple act. Happy Easter everyone!
I’m at a good chapter in The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. Currently on “Week 8: Recovering a Sense of Strength”. There are several sections talking about the creative process. Some statements that stuck with me are as follows:
“At the heart of the anorexia of artistic avoidance is the denial of process. We like to focus on having learned a skill or on having made an artwork. This attention to final form ignores the fact that creativity lies not in the done but in the doing.”
“Focused on process, our creative life retains a sense of adventure. Focused on product, the same creative life can feel foolish or barren.”
“…creative life is grounded on many, many small steps and very, very few large leaps.”
“One of our favorite things to do―instead of our art―is to contemplate the odds…In a creative career, thinking about the odds is a drink of emotional poison. It robs us of the dignity of art-as-process and puts us at the mercy of imagined powers out there. Taking this drink quickly leads to a severe and toxic emotional bender. It leads us to ask, “What’s the use?” instead of “What’s next?”
From The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron
Creativity―like human life itself―begins in darkness. We need to acknowledge this. All too often, we think only in terms of light: “And then the lightbulb went on and I got it!” It is true that insights may come to us as flashes. It is true that some of these flashes may be blinding. It is, however, also true that such bright ideas are preceded by a gestation period that is interior, murky, and completely necessary.
We speak often about ideas a brainchildren. What we do not realize is that brainchildren, like all babies, should not be dragged from the creative womb prematurely. Ideas, like stalactites and stalagmites, form in the dark inner cave of consciousness. They form in drips and drops, not by squared-off building blocks. We must learn to wait for an idea to hatch. Or, to use a gardening image, we must learn to not pull our ideas up by the roots to see if they are growing.
Mulling on the page is an artless art form. It is fooling around. It is doodling. It is the way that ideas slowly take shape and form until they are ready to help us see the light. All too often, we try to push, pull, outline, and control our ideas instead of letting them grow organically. The creative process is a process of surrender, not control.
Mystery is at the heart of creativity. That, and surprise. All too often, when we say we want to be creative, we mean that we want to be able to be productive. Now, to be creative is to be productive–but by cooperating with the creative process, not forcing it.
As creative channels, we need to trust the darkness. We need to learn to gently mull instead of churning away like a little engine on a straight-ahead path. This mulling on the page can be very threatening. “I’ll never get any real ideas this way!” we fret.
Hatching an idea is a lot like baking bread. An idea needs to rise. If you poke at it too much in the beginning, if you keep checking on it, it will never rise. A loaf of bread or a cake, baking, must stay for a good long time in the darkness and safety of the oven. Open that oven too soon and the bread collapses–or the cake gets a hole in its middle because all the steam has rushed out of it. Creativity requires a respectful reticence.
The truth is that this is how to raise the best ideas. Let them grow in dark and mystery. Let them form on the roof of our consciousness. Let them hit the page in droplets. Trusting this slow and seemingly random drip, we will be startled one day by the flash of “Oh! That’s it!”
From page 219 of The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron:
“The morning pages and artist dates must be experienced in order to be explained, just as reading a book about jogging is not the same as putting on your Nikes and heading out to the running track. Map is not your territory, and without reference points from within your own experience, you cannot extrapolate what the morning pages and artist dates can do for you.”
Observing My Creative Process
Since I stopped spending so much in the office and working outside of normal hours, I’ve had a chance to reconnect with my creative side. I got back into mixing music and acting out my other side – DJ ReCreator. I took the leap and started publishing my writing. This blog is one example but I’ve also built up my confidence to share some of my posts on LinkedIn Pulse. Experiments in the kitchen have also been fun though it’s been more scripted by other people’s recipes and not my own creations.
All these areas have been creative outlets for me and have brought more balance to my spirit. I’m happier now. Less and less, I’m not displaying what I learned is the “angry artist” that arises from being stifled and held back. I don’t like being grumpy. Caro and the kids don’t like being around me when I am. Who can blame them. I’m just glad they’ve been patient with me as it took me a long time to find my way “back home.”
Anyway, while I’ve been spending time on my creative projects, I take mental notes of my process and try to get a better understanding of what brings out my best. I also note habits that seem to undermine the process.
It really is more about the process than the product. When I focus too much on the product and the recognition I hope to get from it, I lose my way. Enjoying the journey and not worrying too much about the destination is where I’ve been most myself. So here are some observations regarding the process from my own experience (They seem to reflect the truth in Julia Cameron’s words):
I’ll occasionally have bursts of inspiration where the ideas or words just gush out and I almost can’t keep up. This usually happens during free association or when I’m writing my morning pages. More often, though, I get an idea that feels like a good seed, so I plant it and let it grow at it’s own pace until it’s ready to blossom.
When I’m focused too much on the product versus the process, I get tempted to share something prematurely. I’m learning that my best outcomes are a result of nurturing over time. Maintaining environments and conditions conducive to growth (i.e. balanced and inclusive of all the right elements).
By letting things simmer and rest, I’m able to go back with fresh perspective. This allows me to refine and fill in where needed.
If I’m ever afraid to express something, I remind myself that it doesn’t matter if some people don’t like what I’m doing. If the process serves it purpose and I’m the only one who benefits directly, that’s enough. Worrying about what other people will think is self-sabotaging. Actually, it’s when I don’t worry about putting my true self out there, that I seem to connect with others in a more magical way…at least based on the feedback I’ve received in those instances.
My gut has been a good indicator of whether or not something is ready. Going against it has rarely been a good idea.
Quotes on Creativity
‘Trust that still, small voice that says. “This might work and I’ll try it.”‘
― Diane Mariechild
“Imagination is more important than knowledge.”
― Albert Einstein
“Man can learn nothing except by going from the known to the unknown.”
― Claude Bernard
“I cannot expect even my own art to provide all of the answers–only to hope it keeps asking the right questions.”
― Grace Hartigan
“Art? You just do it.”
― Martin Ritt
“Satisfaction of one’s curiosity is one of the greatest sources of happiness in life.”
― Linus Pauling
“The world of reality has its limits; the world of imagination is boundless.”
― Jean-Jacques Rousseau
“Remember first that everything you think, say, and do is a reflection of what you’ve decided about yourself; a statement of Who You Are; an act of creation in your deciding who you want to be.”
― Neale Donald Walsch
“Intelligence looks for what is known to solve problems. Creativity looks for what is unknown to discover possibilities.”
― Simon Sinek
“Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.”
Being in the zone―or in the state of flow―is often associated with a special kind of focus. And that focus lends itself to extraordinary performance. You know the feeling. The stars are aligned and you experience a suspended moment of clarity. Everything clicks and it feels like you can do no wrong. Even complex situations are managed with ease as you naturally adjust to all variables in real-time. Every decision, every movement is graceful and appears effortless. While often associated with sports, this happens just as much at work, or in any other activity that requires focus in order to perform well.
It seems like some people are able to get in the zone on demand. It’s like they flip an internal switch and then they’re able to stay in the zone until the task at hand is done. Amazing to watch these people in action. What others find challenging, they make look easy. I used to admire these stars from a distance and wonder how I too could learn to flip that switch.
Locus of Control / Circle of Influence
Before my career even started, I was fortunate to have picked up a copy of the classic 7 Habits by Stephen Covey. Habit 1 gave me insight into how people were able to get in the zone. I started seeing the zone as what Covey called your Circle of Influence. Being in the zone meant having an internal locus of control. In other words, I thought that having a primary focus on the things you can control―and attributing outcomes to those ‘controllables’―had a direct correlation with peak performance. Covey emphasized exercising your ability to choose and being proactive versus reactive. This concept has served me well throughout my career. Even if luck had a large part to do with it, applying this concept has brought me good luck.
Many of us spend our time thinking about things outside of our control. (Things that are in our circle of concern, but outside of our circle of influence.) We may want to change something without having the ability to do anything about it. Whether it’s the weather or the economic/political climate, some things are just not in our circle of control. We might not have any influence over certain things today, but it’s possible to take steps towards someday being able to.
Expanding Your Circle of Influence
To grow our circle of influence, it’s important to practice things just outside of our comfort zone. Not way out, just enough to make us stretch. Things that will help us grow but are still within reasonable reach. With enough exposure and practice in those areas, if they’re meaningful to you, they will eventually become second nature and part of your circle of control. This happens organically to some degree. What separates the ordinary from the extraordinary is intention and proactive behavior.
By maintaining an internal locus of control and working in the zone, you create momentum and waves. I like to consider each phase of my career a wave that I ride as well as I can for as long as it lasts. In the past 25 years, I’ve had 6 or so significant career changes, or waves (metaphorically speaking.) With each role, I got in my zone and made the most of each wave I caught. Sometimes it would get choppy and I would get worked, but I’d keep charging ahead. When it was cranking, I felt the flow and did my thing.
“It feels like the moment you’re in is where you’re supposed to be…”
Each ride made me better at what I did and as I grew professionally, so did my circle of influence. Those rides were good while they lasted, but every chapter has a beginning and an end, and even big waves have to end sometime.
What Got You Here Won’t Get You There
…is what Marshall Goldsmith titled one of his books. He talked about growing as an executive by evolving rather than following the same formula for success that has gotten you this far. We’re all tempted to rinse and repeat when we find an approach or method that works for us. This never lasts though. Things change–conditions, inputs, reactions, etc. What works today will not necessarily work tomorrow, or next month, or next year. There’s also a tendency for successful people to form bad habits that can defeat and unravel any good that they’ve done. One of those bad habits Goldsmith calls “clinging to the past – the need to deflect blame away from ourselves and onto events and people from our past.” In doing so, we’re basically shifting our locus of control from internal to external.
My transition between waves varied. In some cases, I was able to piggy-back off the previous experience. In other situations, I had to start fresh.
There was a point in my management career when I was really in the zone. I stayed focused on the things I could actually control. I took on projects that I knew I could influence, hired the right people and followed the principles that I knew would bring results. Everything fell into place. I was promoted 3 times in 3 years. Stepping stone after stepping stone I climbed, eventually accepting the role of Vice President of Marketing. Then the environment changed – steppings stones became stumbling blocks.
Instead of reassessment, I tried harder to follow the formula that worked for me in the past…it wasn’t working anymore. I kept hitting a brick wall. At first, I kept pounding my head against the wall thinking I could eventually break through. That just caused pain. Then I tried finding a ladder that got me over similar walls I had encountered before. This time, there were no ladders to be found. It took me a while to realize it, but now I see that the wall was there for a different reason. Time to go in a different direction.
Adjusting to Change
New directions and unchartered territory can be scary. Fear of the unknown is natural. As you step out of your comfort zone, you have to deal with the unfamiliar. This is one of those moments where ‘the rubber hits the road’ and how you choose to respond determines how easily you’ll be able to acclimate.
“Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.” “Step out of your comfort zone.” Whatever version you’ve heard, I know it’s cliché. Maybe because repetition is actually required for it to become effective and for the message to hit home.
The more we practice stepping out of our comfort zone, the less daunting these changes are. We get used to embracing change rather than fighting it. When this becomes second nature, you can still be “in the zone” even though you’re stepping out of your comfort zone. Because you’ve done it enough times where you accept it as par for the course. You’re no longer paralyzed by that fear.
“To be outstanding, get comfortable with being uncomfortable.”
As you advance through your career, stay focused on what you’re good at, the things that are important to you and that you’re passionate about. This will help keep you in the zone and boost your performance. Ride those waves for as long as they last and your circle of influence will continue to expand. Opportunities and resources that were once out of reach begin to enter your circle, fueling success in a virtuous cycle. Success begets further success…until it doesn’t.
Relish these moments in the zone. They tend to be fleeting. Athletes can get into a slump. Careers might hit a glass ceiling. When your wave crashes and it’s time to look for your next ride, acknowledge that the rinse and repeat formula may not work anymore. You’ll need to accept change and be comfortable with it.
“The key to pursuing excellence is to embrace an organic, long-term learning process, and not to live in a shell of static, safe mediocrity. Usually, growth comes at the expense of previous comfort or safety.”
— Josh Waitzkin
Good athletes know this. Successful professionals know this. The difference between just knowing and actually doing is the key to keeping the door open and unlocking the gate to flow. Remember to make time regularly to ‘sharpen the saw’ and do things outside of your comfort zone. Step out and stretch. Do something good that makes you uncomfortable. There will come a time when you’ll need to make a more drastic change in your career and this practice will come in handy. When work or life throws you a curve ball, you’ll be more ready for anything that comes your way if you regularly practice stepping out of your comfort zone. You might swing and miss. That’s ok. That’s how we learn when it’s time to switch it up. Before you know it, you’ll be hitting those curve balls out of the park and making it look effortless.
For a while I believed I was exempt. I had already survived several mergers and acquisitions over the years but then it happened. Where and why doesn’t matter here. This is about the process that followed. Some career breaks are planned. This one was not.
“It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.”
First, there’s the shock. For some it’s expected, but as I mentioned, I thought I was immune. Like falling off a ladder, it hurt. My ego was bruised.
“The fall from low to lower hardly hurts; the fall from middle to low is devastating.”
– Adam Grant, Originals (p.83)
Insecurity set in. Questions about the future felt overwhelming. Looking back, how I decided to respond made the difference. I put my psychology studies into use and self-administered some therapy…
Get Over It
Easier said than done, I know. My first reaction was to immediately get back in the game and lock in the next gig quickly. I decided to be methodical in my approach. To measure my efforts, I kept a log of everything related to the job search and the results of every interaction. Every call with recruiters, every interview, every resume submission…all of it. Months of calculated effort were only leading to wrong turns and dead ends.
Depression eventually caught up with me. Anxiety prevented any restful sleep, no matter how exhausted I felt. I was spiraling downward and couldn’t break the funk. Then I made a concerted effort to slow down and pause.
What you choose to pay attention to can dramatically alter your experience (the whole “perception is reality” thing), so I chose to focus on right now instead of dwelling in the past or worrying about the future. Some days were easier than others, but I kept exercising a skill that had atrophied in recent years – my ability to choose rather than fly on autopilot. It wasn’t long before I crawled out of my hole.
Time heals all wounds. I just didn’t want it to take too long. Sitting around feeling sorry for myself wasn’t doing anybody any good. It was time to move on, ready or not.
Look in the Mirror and Then Out the Window
Looking in the rearview mirror, I took a good chunk of time to reassess how far I’ve come and the road that got me here. Then looking at myself, I was no longer sure that I was happy with what I saw in the mirror. Who had I become? What would I have done differently? How could I correct course? Where am I headed now? Is it time to go in a different direction?
At least, I felt I was asking the right questions.
I had become a workaholic. Developing the discipline to work long and hard hours was a badge of honor for me. Getting up every morning at 4:30am, working 12-14 hour days, and not sleeping until after midnight eventually led to burnout. Promotions and financial rewards fueled that fire for many years but towards the end, I burned up any remaining mojo and was only running on fumes. All the while, I failed to realize―or maybe I was denying that―I was trading off important things for all those work hours…time with my family and time for myself.
Now was my chance to slow down before I ran myself off a cliff. To find balance instead of working all the time. To remember what was really important to me. As I looked ahead, the fog began to clear and I hit a fork in the road.
To the right, was the continuation of the road I had already been traveling. I could get back into life as a corporate executive and continue my climb up the proverbial ladder. It was a toll road, and at what cost, I could only imagine. To the left, looked like it might take me back home but I could see the route might be a bit bumpy.
…Two roads diverged in a wood, and I, I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.
If you’ve already read the post about my colorful career path, you know I chose the road less traveled. Once I made that conscious decision, I simply started by making a few promises to myself:
Remain true to who you are
Live in the present and use good judgment
Leave it better than you found it
“To thine own self be true.“
Over the past few years, I got a little lost and lost myself in the process. I became increasingly insecure about who I was and found myself trying too hard to be what others wanted me to be. For example, although I’m an introvert, I pretended to be an extrovert. I thought that was the only way you could be successful as an executive. I do believe it’s possible to “fake it until you become it.” That said, I just didn’t like it. It wasn’t me. I wanted to be myself. Being myself also meant doing things at my own pace. As an executive, I often felt rushed and pressured to deliver results quickly. In most cases I was able to adjust as needed, but lately I saw more and more that quality was being sacrificed for the sake of speed.
After reading Quiet by Susan Cain, I began looking at introversion in a new light. I became comfortable in my own skin again. Another book, In Praise of Slowness by Carl Honoré, helped me slow down and appreciate ‘tempo giusto’ – what musicians use to refer to the “right speed.” (Used in reference to living life with balance…fast when needed and slow when called for.) Moreover, this respect for time translated to better appreciation for the present. The gift of now.
“If you presence doesn’t make an impact, your absence won’t make a difference.”
Ever since childhood, I’ve found it difficult to live in the moment. The exceptions were times when I was absorbed in activities such as blending vinyl music with 2 turntables, choreographing a hip-hop dance routine, or pushing out one more rep in the gym. My usual MO was to dream about the future or worry about the past. I found it hard to enjoy the present because my mind was always elsewhere. If there were only one important change I could make to my approach from here on out, it would be to live in the here and now.
(This usually requires an inside-out approach which begins with yourself. To some, this is misconstrued as selfish behavior. Important to get past that stage. I’ve learned that living in the present is much easier when what you focus on is self-less rather than self-centered.)
Here’s how I see it: The past is past so no sense lingering there. No one knows what the future holds and life is rarely linear. The best way to set yourself up for a good future is to do the best you can with what you’ve got today. You don’t have to be perfect. You just need to use good judgment and make every effort to leave everything better than before you found it. That includes every action and every word spoken (or unspoken). At the end of the day, you’d be surprised how big of a difference you made to the people and world around you. All those thoughtful actions, no matter how small, add up.
Oh, I promised myself one more thing. Never take for granted the blessings you already have.
There’s really not much more to say about this. I just realized that more is not necessarily better. By appreciating all the good things already in my life, I’m learning to be happy with less. I drive a Prius and I’m cool with that. I live in a modest home, have great neighbors and live comfortably. It’s almost 20 years later and I think my wife still loves me ;). Honey, I’m good. Three beautiful children to kiss goodnight. I am blessed.
I believe that everything happens for a reason. In the moment, it may not make sense, but it often does in retrospect. What felt like an imposition turned out to be a blessing. I was forced to reassess my life to date and what was truly important to me. This was what I needed. I was so obsessed with achievement and accomplishment that I was taking for granted my family and losing myself in the process. The break in my career gave me time to realize that, before it was too late.
“Slow down and enjoy life. It’s not only the scenery you miss by going too fast―you also miss the sense of where you are going and why” – Eddie Cantor
In Praise of Slowness: How a Worldwide Movement Is Challenging the Cult of Speed by Carl Honoré
Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain
Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown
“The richest, happiest and most productive lives are characterized by the ability to fully engage in the challenge at hand, but also to disengage periodically and seek renewal”
— Jim Lore and Tony Schwartz
“If you just sit and observe, you will see how restless your mind is. If you try to calm it, it only makes it worse, but over time it does calm, and when it does, there’s room to hear more subtle things—that’s when your intuition starts to blossom and you start to see things more clearly and be in the present more. Your mind just slows down, and you see a tremendous expanse in the moment. You see so much more than you could see before.”
— Steve Jobs
“Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”
(Ferris Bueller’s Day Off)
“Speed can be fun, productive and powerful, and we would be poorer without it. What the world needs, and what the slow movement offers, is a middle path, a recipe for marrying la dolce vita with the dynamism of the information age. The secret is balance: instead of doing everything faster, do everything at the right speed. Sometimes fast. Sometimes slow. Sometimes in between.”
— Carl Honoré, the author of “In Praise of Slowness”
“Like a bee in a flower bed, the human brain naturally flits from one thought to the next. In the high-speed workplace, where data and headlines come thick and fast, we are all under pressure to think quickly. Reaction, rather than reflection, is the order of the day. To make the most of our time, and to avoid boredom, we fill up every spare moment with mental stimulation…Keeping the mind active makes poor use of our most precious resource. True, the brain can work wonders in high gear. But it will do so much more if given the chance to slow down from time to time. Shifting the mind into lower gear can bring better health, inner calm, enhanced concentration and the ability to think more creatively.”
— Carl Honoré, Canadian journalist based in London
Carl mentions this on page 120 of his book, “In Praise of Slowness”
“Rivers know this: There is no hurry. We shall get there some day”
— From “Pooh’s Little Instruction Book”, a gift from my friend Jake Jakobson while we were still living in Japan
“Direction is so much more important than speed. Many are going nowhere fast.”
“I don’t have time to be in a hurry”
“Slow down and enjoy life. It’s not only the scenery you miss by going too fast―you also miss the sense of where you are going and why.” — Eddie Cantor
Now all you can do is wait. It must be hard for you, but there is a right time for everything. Like the ebb and flow of tides. No one can do anything to change them. When it is time to wait, you must wait.
“Life is full of ebbs and flows. Trust that when things are slow or not going the way you’d like, there’s something positive coming your way. Things are in the works, the universe is shifting, and all the seeds you plant will come to bloom in their right time. Take care of yourself, trust in the process and stop trying to force things.” — Stephenie Zamora
In his book, The Happiness Equation, author Neil Pasricha mentions a quote by Tim Kreider in his New York Times article, “The ‘Busy’ Trap”:
“Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets. The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration—it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.”
“It is in this space of the unknown where all possibilities appear, this space where magic can happen. The space from the end of something to the beginning of something new that brings forth a new lease of life, a new energy.” — parth_é, Life is Flux
“We are often foolish in that we let our obsession with creation, following the force of sizzling anxiety and adrenaline to put the intangible into a product, take over the bare materials we need to do it well: living. Taking stock and thinking. Reading, watching, crying, eating.
Our brains don’t just stop because we’re not wrist deep in paint or late night loomed in stanzas.
They’re preparing for the next project.
They’re recuperating, tidying tiny pieces into their boxes to make enough room to lay out the new ones.”
— Charly Cox
“Leisure” by W. H. Davies
What is this life if, full of care, We have no time to stand and stare.
No time to stand beneath the boughs, And stare as long as sheep or cows.
No time to see, when woods we pass, Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.
No time to see, in broad daylight, Streams full of stars, like skies at night.
No time to turn at Beauty’s glance, And watch her feet, how they can dance.
No time to wait till her mouth can Enrich that smile her eyes began.
A poor life this if, full of care, We have no time to stand and stare.
I Don’t Have a Degree I get e-mails every day. “I’d like to work at Google but I don’t have a degree,” Or, “I’d like to be a success but I don’t have an MBA.” And it’s not just degrees. I get e-mails from people who think they need yoga teacher certification. Or a medical degree (you can be a healer without writing prescriptions). Or any flimsy piece of paper that ultimately is no indicator of value. Google’s head of HR has even announced that graduates’ GPAs are a waste to look at. And that more and more of their hires have no college degrees at all! It’s just another way the world is changing, and you have to grasp it now. It used to be that a stranger knew he could cooperate with you if you had that stupid piece of paper. Come up with ten ideas on how you can escape the trap of the degree and demonstrate you still have value. Ideas for the company you want to work for, or the person you want to work with. Or just go get a camera and start making movies without a film degree.
When actor Andy Samberg was starting at Saturday Night Live he didn’t just huddle in the writers’ room with everyone else and try to come up with jokes. There was too much competition! Instead, he took a camera and with his buddies Jorm and Akiva went out and shot “Lazy Sunday,” which was the first YouTube video to get over 100 million views and became his first SNL digital short. He didn’t wait to rise through the ranks and hopefully get a joke or a sketch produced. He went out and produced it himself.
Before Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop” got a billion views on YouTube, the rapper turned down every record label. He realized he didn’t need the validation they have provided to generations of artists. The distribution is there to reach the world no matter what your field is. You validate yourself now through your work.
Apologies to Mr. Altucher for taking that much verbatim from his book. I just read those pages this morning and it hit home.
The Trip Full Circle
I fall in the category of those who dropped out of college. While I had many an opportunity to finish, life went on and I eventually decided not to. When I’m having an insecure moment, I like to remind myself that I only had two classes to finish (and they were both freshman level electives!) so really, I earned pretty much everything I needed for that Liberal Arts degree in Psychology. I guess I just didn’t cross the finish line which could be perceived as inability to follow through. I understand and respect other perspectives. I just don’t personally see it that way. It doesn’t have to be a negative. I have worked very hard since then to show that it doesn’t have to matter if you don’t let it.
The Road Not Taken
…Two roads diverged in a wood, and I, I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.
– Robert Frost
It was 1991 and I was scheduled to graduate at the end of Spring semester. This was all the JET Programme (Japanese Exchange and Teaching Program) needed to know at the time I applied and interviewed. They didn’t actually ask to see my degree before it was time for me to board the plane that summer. By the time the University of Illinois notified me that I failed two classes (English 101 Introduction to Poetry and Classic Civilization 115 Mythology of Greece and Rome), I was already all set to leave for Japan. Although becoming an Assistant English Teacher (AET) had nothing to do with my major, it was a 1 year adventure abroad with all expenses paid as well as a monthly salary. I wasn’t about to pass on the opportunity unless absolutely necessary. That degree would have to wait.
I had lady luck on my side. After the year was over, I had the option to extend for another year and I definitely wanted to. The only catch – I had to renew my work visa and I was told they required a copy of my college degree in the process. I figured I had better start packing my bags but then again…why not just go through the motions and see what happens? Even if they sent me home, I already had my adventure. For some unknown reason, the Japanese government renewed my visa without any questions. One year turned into two and next thing you know 3 years later I was still in Japan. That was the maximum length that anyone could stay with the Jet Programme. As the third year winded down, a Japanese friend referred me to the CEO of a private language school under the Terakoya Group. They offered me a job and I had to go through the process of renewing my work visa for another year. Again, nobody asked to see my college degree. Surprising enough, the person in front of me in line was asked for his. To this day I can’t figure out how I got away with it year after year, but my luck lasted long enough for me to meet my future wife. Caro was on a 9 month work-study program and just happened to be assigned to Matsuyama City where I also lived. After 6 years in Japan, instead of calling it luck, I’d like to think it was serendipity.
Unlike I did in college, note that I wasn’t just sliding by while I worked in Matsuyama. Knowing that I didn’t finish school, I felt like I had to prove something and make my mark anyway. My second year, I was elected as the Ehime Prefectural Representative for AJET (The Association of Japanese Exchange and Teaching) and after 1 year at Terakoya, I was promoted to Head Teacher at the private language school.
Ok. The story goes on, but I need to pause here for now. The kids are awake and I’ve been writing since 5am.
[2/16/2016 4:38am] Picking up where I left off…
When I returned to the States in the summer of 1997, it was like “Oh sh*t, what do I do for work now? I don’t have a degree.” I was going on 28 years old and still didn’t have any solid plans for my career. I was back with my parents and when my Dad asked me what I was planning to do next, I told him I was thinking about starting a DJ business. I could sense his disappointment. When your parents go against all odds to earn their college degrees in the Philippines and then move the entire family to the Unites States so we can have a better life in the Land of Opportunity, I can understand why being a DJ might not be what they had in mind for their son. When I was still at the University majoring in Electrical Engineering, I think I was living up to expectations. We all imagined my future becoming an engineer like Dad and having a secure and well-paid profession for life…I guess I’d be disappointed with my DJ ambition too.
Got to get ready for work. I’ll continue later.
[2/16/2016 7:45pm continuation]
While I worked to put things in place for the DJ startup, I took a commissioned sales associate position in retail. Retail store positions don’t often require a college degree. I chose Bachrach, a men’s clothing retailer founded in Decatur, IL with locations all around the Chicago area. I’d always been into fashion so this would be aligned with my interests. Sales was not my strength, but it paid the bills and helped fund the DJ equipment and music I would need. For years, I tried to work both paths in parallel without any breakthrough success. I knew very little about operating a profitable business and everything I learned was from trial and error.
The DJ business wasn’t growing fast enough and we were getting deeper and deeper into debt. Thousands of dollars spent on music, lighting and other gear without enough gigs to pay for it all. When I found out that Caro was pregnant with León, I knew I needed to change my approach if I had any chance of providing for my growing family. I decided to focus on Bachrach and work my way up the ladder. We could stabilize our finances and buy me time to figure out what to do as an entrepreneur. Looking back, that was a pivotal point. After my motivation shifted from selfish ambitions to providing for the family, my career started to take off.
Within a few years, I went from Sales Associate to Store Manager to Director of E-commerce. (I’ll save my success strategy for a different post.) I worked in several locations and eventually had my own office at the downtown Chicago corporate headquarters. There were several rungs in between and along the way, but I won’t get into those details now. What happened with the DJ business? One thing led to another and it eventually led to the launch of ChicagoWeddingServices.com. Although small potatoes compared to other dot coms, it was a business model that made money while I slept and the site could often run on autopilot. It supplemented my income at Bachrach quite nicely. (For more details, see my post on Website Experiments Throughout the Years)
After 10 years at Bachrach, I had to move on. Too many acquisitions had taken place and it was no longer a fit. I began looking elsewhere. When I was offered a position at Dreams Retail in 2008, I jumped. Fortunately, during the interview process, my college education wasn’t a deciding factor.
I would have to say that my years at Dreams, Inc. have been the highlight of my career to date. Kevin Bates and the team he built created a work environment that brought out my best. I started off in an Account Management role but followed the same strategy I used to work my way up at Bachrach. I went from non-management to executive management with a team of more than 50 people to lead. I eventually got promoted to Director of Marketing and in less than two years after that, became VP of Marketing.
This too eventually came to an end. Dreams Inc. was acquired by Fanatics Inc. and I relocated from the Chicago area to the Jacksonville, Florida area. (The kids didn’t like the move, but we had a new house built in a nice neighborhood. It also helps that we live only a couple hours from Disney.) I was able to keep my position as VP of Digital Marketing but with so many changes during and after the integration period, it was the beginning of the end for that chapter. My time at Fanatics officially ended in January of 2015. Without having anything lined up yet, I spent 6 months in what I call “mid-career retirement” – a career break if you will. We didn’t have to worry about finances, at least for a while, so I had the luxury of time to decompress, reconnect with my family, and think about the next chapter. As scary as it can be to lose a 6 figure salary, I’m grateful for what I’ve gotten in return.
“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
– T.S. Eliot
Today, I feel like I’ve come full circle in a way. I’m back in fashion retail and am making about the same income as I did when I first started my career. I see everything through a different lense though. While money is still important, it’s no longer the carrot. It’s no longer about the prestigious title, but more about the unique contribution and value. Being hourly no longer has a negative connotation to me. It now means I have more work-life balance. Instead of thinking so much about what I want in the future, I spend more time appreciating what I already have and whom I’m with today. Things will have to change again I’m sure. Even though we’ve always lived below our means, our current lifestyle is not sustainable in the long run with my current income. Surprisingly, I’m not very worried though. We’ll figure it out. I know because we’ve done it before.
Regarding my college degree, or lack thereof, it has definitely made a difference in my career choices and the life I’ve lived. I’ve spent most of my career proving that you can succeed without a degree. When the competition was smarter, I just worked longer and harder to compensate. Most of my lessons learned were from the school of hard knocks. I learned the simple yet important lesson on how to make a positive difference…always strive to leave it better than you found it.
I’m content with what I’ve accomplished as a college dropout. I have no regrets.
Caro and I were married in 1998, not too long after I started at Bachrach. Although she has seen and experienced all the ups and downs of my career, she has never stopped being supportive. Even when she didn’t agree with all my choices, she has stood by my side and was always there to give me strength when I needed it most. I can’t imagine how things would have turned out without her. All these years later, I don’t worry too much anymore about climbing the corporate ladder or making lots of money. With her and our three beautiful children, I already feel successful. Together we’ll make life good no matter what comes our way.
To my band of brothers who joined me on my crazy adventure as an entrepreneur: That was an awesome ride, let’s do it again!
Grateful to the many coworkers who I had the privilege to work with, and my bosses/mentors who also shaped who I am and how I work today – they were some of my best teachers. To the organizations and hiring managers who took a leap of faith and gave me a shot, thank you.
I also want to give a shout-out to all my family and friends, near and far. You’ve never judged me and accept me for who I am, warts and all.
And special thanks to Mom and Dad, for always loving me even when I disappoint. From you I learned what is possible when you work hard. [2/17/2016 4:38am] Today is Dad’s 70th Birthday. I dedicate this post to him.
Essentialism /əˈsen(t)SHəˌlizəm/ (as defined by Greg McKeown)
The disciplined pursuit of less
Even though I specifically wrote down at the beginning that I would curb my smoking this past weekend, I didn’t. I think I actually smoked more than I usually do. I often blame stress as one of the main reasons I smoke. It helps take off the edge I say to myself. So when I work, I smoke due to the stress at work. You would think, then, that I would smoke less when I’m off work. For me that hasn’t been the case. At home, I smoke due to a different kind of stress. Being a parent can be stressful. When the children test your patience, or you feel non-stop busy running the kids around to their various activities, or just daily chores you feel obligated to attend to. Of course, it all depends on what you focus on, and your attitude towards it. When I find myself overly concerned with the things that I want to do, then everything else is a distraction, but when I catch myself doing that, I can often course-correct and start focusing on what I can do for my family since I’m home. This is my way of transforming the stress to joy.
Last Wednesday was Ash Wednesday and the beginning of the Lenten Season. Growing up, I was always under the impression that we had to give something up during that time. That’s how my Dad stopped smoking. He gave it up for Lent one year and then never went back. In the last few years, I haven’t taken the tradition very seriously. This year, I had no real intention to give anything up, but then yesterday Sofia asked me what I was giving up for Lent. She noticed that I went out to the backyard to smoke and had already done it only about an hour before. She cautiously mentioned that she knew something good that I could give up for Lent. Smart cookie that one. Very subtle and sincere without leaving me feeling picked on. I didn’t feel angry like my knee-jerk reaction would have it. I felt guilty because I could see Sofia really cared and she said it with that childlike innocence that you just can’t get mad at. Normally I would get annoyed, whether it be at Caro or Mom, because I simply get bothered when the topic comes up. Everyone means well so I try very hard to keep my knee-jerk reaction in check.
Anyway, I was thinking about it again this morning. Giving up something aligns with the whole “Essentialism” philosophy I’ve been drawn to after reading Greg McKeown. I’ve learned from earlier attempts that promising to stop smoking would just lead to disappointment for everyone. What could I give up that was doable and be a good thing to let go of so I could focus on better things? It would have to be something challenging but that I would be confident enough to pull off. As I did a cursory mental review of how I spend my time, I thought of just the thing…watching TV. That would include Netflix and Redbox which I gravitate towards when I need an escape or comfort from the daily stressors.
This I can do. Even if the only side-benefit is to give me more time to sleep, that would be worth missing a night of Gotham or waiting a little longer to watch “The Martian” recently released on Redbox. We’ll see how it goes. Maybe if I can get a smaller win this Lenten Season, I’ll go for the bigger challenge of a smoke cessation program.
Although I prefer the whole abundance mentality thing, daily life can definitely feel like a series of trade-offs. Trying to do it all and have it all leaves most of us burnt out and still not satisfied. As pointed out in “Essentialism” by Greg McKeown, when deciding how to spend your limited time, it really helps to let go of the trivial many for the vital few. “Less but better.” In other words, find the discipline to do less of the unimportant so you have time to focus on what really makes a difference. Funny how we often choose otherwise.
So when it comes to Lent this year, I’m not giving something up for the sake of sacrifice. I’m exercising my ability to better choose how I spend my free time. Watching TV is now on my “to don’t” list, at least until the Lenten season is over.
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