Archive for the ‘work’ Category


The Fading Away of Voicemail

January 12, 2015

I am old enough to have seen the rise, and now the fall, of voicemail. In 1994 I was the technology specialist at a brand-new middle school in Chapel Hill, and part of my technology orientation for the faculty was teaching them how to set up voicemail on their phone extensions. This was a big deal for us–my previous school had no voicemail system and about four phones for the whole staff to share. I know that technologically, 1994 is eons ago–every student file in that entire school fit on three 1GB servers, and a fourth server ran both the media center catalog and our internal email. Yup, in 1994 we didn’t have Internet email. We could not send messages to another school, or to the central office. We also had to choose whether to buy teacher laptops with color screens or black and white, and whether to buy desktops with or without CD-ROM drives.

Today I read this article about Coca-Cola’s decision to shut down its voicemail system. I first noticed this trend about two years ago. While I was teaching a workshop at a Silicon Valley hard-drive company, a participant mentioned in passing that he got about one voicemail message a week. I asked others in the room if that resonated with their experience, and they all said yes. One manager said, “I’ve gone from 5-10 messages a day, to maybe one or two a week.” The drivers: email, text, and smartphones. By comparison, voicemail is inefficient.

Coke’s decision will probably accelerate this trend, which was impossible to imagine in 1994. The only catch I see is that, unless the company is providing the phone and data package, we’re moving the cost of voicemail accessibility from the company to the employee. But no one will have to figure out how to create and modify the dreaded voicemail message.


My Monkey Mind In Full Swing

February 25, 2014

I haven’t meditated for a couple of weeks, but today was a teaching day and I really like to start my day with a 20-minute sit. It calms me, and helps me feel focused before I spend the day “on” with a group of strangers.

I was easily 15 minutes in before I realized I had not once bothered to focus on my breath. As soon as I closed my eyes, my mind started racing. Anticipating the workshop I’d be teaching, thinking of upcoming travel, phone calls I had to schedule, what was going on at home … a never-ending cascade of blather. This is what Buddhists call this leaping from one thought to another “monkey mind.” When I finally realized that my intention was to listen to my breath and silently say, “maranatha,” I was stunned at the monkey’s agility. Unfazed, it stilled for about two breaths before resuming its activity: composing this blog post. You are a mischievous monkey indeed.


Christmas, Travel, and Rest

December 8, 2013

It is so very hard to fight through the commercialization and the sentimentality to find something I can call Christmas spirit. This year, as I near 175,000 miles of travel, pass 90 nights in hotels, and for the first time welcome back both kids from college, I’m drawn to the role of travel and rest in the Christmas story. The journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, the pilgrimage of the Magi, the flight into Egypt, the witness of the shepherds … that’s a lot of travel. Yet all these paths lead to peace: an infant son arrives, glad tidings abound, the world slows down and the sun finally reverses its southern trek in the sky. In the stillness of a cold winter’s night, the darkness is overcome.

Yesterday slowly filled me with the Christmas spirit. Not because of shopping or wrapping or music, though there was a bit of each. It’s because I got to spend the day with people I love. My in-laws spent Friday night with us after visiting with one of their sons and his family in Durham. We spent the morning chatting over coffee. Then I read and relaxed for a while before Vicki and I headed to see our dear friends Mark and Betsy, who have been mentors to us both. Their home was filled with Christmas, and it filled us–not just the treats and wassail, but also their kindness and curiosity. Vicki worked with Betsy for years at Duke, and it was from Betsy that Vicki’s commitment to service learning took root. Mark saved my Christian faith, introducing me to Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan, Richard Rohr, Robin Meyers, et al. When I met Mark I had essentially stopped thinking of myself as a Christian. Now I think of myself as a progressive, contemplative Christian. Thus the appreciation I felt in their home was just a reflection of the thankfulness I feel every time I see Mark.

After a bit of shopping for a wedding shower gift, it was a very special date night with the person who is most special of all to me. Vicki and I celebrated (the day, the season, our friends, our marriage, our family, our many blessings? sure, all of those) at one of our favorite restaurants, Provence. We’ve had a couple of anniversary dinners there, and this time, thanks to the gift of yet another dear friend, Maria, we were finally celebrating our empty nest–a week before the kids return to fill it for a few weeks! We topped the evening with latest installment of one of our favorite movie series, Before Midnight. Yes, Vicki and I love movies filled with a couple’s dialog. And there’s something precious about checking in with Jesse and Celine every nine years–how are they doing? How are we doing? Damn, we are doing absolutely great.

A full day, but not a stressful one. A day of rest from the road, from work, from the to-do lists of the holidays. A day to find peace in the darkness.


A harmful evaluation process is finally ending at Microsoft

November 14, 2013

Ding-dong, the brutally unfair “stack ranking” process is dead at Microsoft. The company announced that it would be using different methods of evaluating employees. As this NY Times piece notes, not only did this process discourage some recruits from joining the company, it also kicked out plenty of good employees.

The central flawed assumption behind stack ranking is that it assumes that 20% of your workforce is always doing an unacceptable job. It’s comparing employees to each other instead of to clear, measurable performance standards. It’s the opposite of the “Lake Wobegon Syndrome,” where “every kid is above average.” How many very good employees lost their job because, well, somebody’s got to be at the bottom of the pile? How incredibly sad to have to push potential out your door.

Another heart-breaking part of this: star employees not wanting to work together because only so many people get to be at the top of each manager’s rankings. Could Microsoft’s dearest rivals have concocted a shrewder policy: don’t let your sharpest people collaborate! I am delighted to hear that stack ranking is on its way out.


Sustained Attention

November 9, 2013

We are revising our workshop content, and I love the changes we’ve made. The approach is more positive, more affirming of work, and more active. In fact, our beta tests thus far have left our participants looking exhausted my mid-afternoon. After a session in Hawaii, I fell asleep restless. I couldn’t articulate what was bothering me about the way the day ended. When I awoke, the first two words that popped into my head were, “sustained attention.”

One of the central lessons we are teaching people is that, in an age of constant distraction and overwhelming amounts of information coming at us, we need to be able to give sustained attention to our work. And yet the second half of our workshop was a continuous feed of interruptions: a bit of direct instruction, some quick practice, a debrief, some video, find a new partner, on and on. We were not letting them practice what we were preaching. We need to provide them with some sustained attention to a new skill. I’m not talking about a day-long retreat or an hour-long work session. I think it’s hard these days to give something five minutes of focus.

The same issue has been dogging my lack of a writing practice. This post is an attempt to merge these two frustrations. I’m now going to look at my blogging as a place to practice sustained attention. I figure writing for five minutes is infinitely better than not writing at all.

This has actually taken more than ten minutes. I started on Tumblr, then decided this topic was WordPress worthy. I was briefly interrupted by the guy next to me on the plane here in Atlanta; he needed his charger for his phone while we’re still on the ground.

Here’s my challenge to myself: make a five-minute space in my day to write about something.


Beginner’s Mind

January 5, 2012

One of the most prominent books on Buddhism in America is Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind (1970). At the risk of oversimplifying, the idea is that the beginner takes to a practice with a freshness and openness that can dim with experience. While I still enjoy going to baseball games, I have never felt the thrill I experienced the first time I saw the green green grass under the lights of Fenway Park, now 40 years ago. Suzuki gave the talks that became the book in part to help his budding Bay Area Zen community maintain their beginners’ minds as they learned to meditate.

I have now taught Precision Questioning+Answering over 200 times. Not only is it easy for me to forget what it is like to teach it a first time, it is even more challenging to imagine what it might be like to take the workshop for the first time. Last year I had two learning experiences which helped me re-experience beginner’s mind. In March I took Powerful, Persuasive Speaking from my friend, outstanding trainer, and philorator extraordinaire  Alan Hoffler. I entered the training figuring I had some polishing up to do, but quickly discovered that I was much more mediocre at speaking than I’d estimated. I found myself suppressing the desire to dismiss the lessons of PPS as superfluous or tangential to my own teaching–the ego is powerful, and mine was not prepared to have its limitations exposed. But the beginner’s mind is a humble mind, without pretense, and I quickly swallowed my pride and opened up to the possibility that I could become a much better presenter if I was willing to try the techniques taught in PPS. There was some pain in acknowledging my shortcomings, but once I set aside my ego the growth was astounding. The comments, written and verbal, about the quality of my presentations since I took PPS, are the highest and most frequent of my career.

In November I was browsing at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill when I stumbled upon ChiRunning by Danny Meyer. My travel schedule was making it hard for me to keep up with my over-40 pickup soccer group, and I had been thinking I needed to start to run more regularly, so discovering this book felt like the universe tapping me on the shoulder. ChiRunning applies tai chi principles to running, easing punishment on the body and making running an activity of both joy and focus. At the ChiRunning website I found a half-day workshop being taught in Raleigh Thanksgiving weekend, and I figured it would be a way to get quick feedback on applying the ChiRunning methods. But learning them required substantial changes; it was like learning to run all over again. Enter beginner’s mind: standing with a group of strangers, listening to our patient and kind instructor, Pat Reichenbach, and trying to run like I’d never run before, all required me to again put aside my ego, admit I was not very good at something, and then start getting better at it. I’ve been running this way for almost two months now, and while I know my form is not perfect, it is starting to feel more natural. Each run feels like it’s new still, which has invigorated my practice. I am really enjoying running, and hope a beginner’s mind will guide me each time.

It is not hard to admit I’m not good at quantum mechanics or the viola–most of us aren’t. But to admit I am not good at speaking or running is to acknowledge I have deficits in things we are all supposed to have a basic competence at. When I stand in front of a room of new PQ’ers, some of them might not want to admit they are not as good at asking or answering questions as they could be. My own experiences with


Three Layers of Tired

December 1, 2011

Tonight I am sitting in the Sky Club in Seattle. In the last 54 hours I have flown from Raleigh to Atlanta to San Francisco to Seattle, and in 90 minutes I’ll head back to Atlanta on my way home. Even though I love to travel, that’s an intense couple of days, and I’m feeling tired.

Beneath that layer of tired lies another kind of fatigue, the kind I get after I teach a workshop. This fatigue comes from projecting all the energy I can into the room where I am teaching, from 9:30 to 5:00 (yesterday in San Jose) and 8:30 to 4:00 (today in Seattle). I am  trying to listen to everyone and to think carefully about each comment and to remember to look toward all corners of the audience and to speak slowly and to time the jokes and … and the result is a feeling of emptiness that runs from my dulled brain to my tired feet.

Yet peeling away this fatigue reveals joy. Under the two kinds of tired, travel and teaching, sits a deep level of satisfaction. I love my work, teaching this incredible workshop to interesting people in wonderful cities. I love feeling like I gave them all I had this week. And I love the feeling of heading home.

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