Saturday, July 25, 2009

Laying track – to where? The difference between dreams and goals

My Uncle Bill dreamed of retiring. So did my friend Sherry. They both had public-service jobs so there was a pension awaiting each of them.

Sherry worked her allotted span of years and began to collect her pension, but several years later she still clocks in regularly and it’s not because she needs the money.

Uncle Bill punched his last time card, said So Long to his colleagues, and never looked back.

The difference between them is that Sherry’s dream was retirement, which is simply a lack of employment after a certain age. She hadn’t decided what she wanted to do with her eight-hours-a-day-plus-commuting time.

Uncle Bill, on the other hand, had more than a dream. He had a goal. After lunch Monday to Friday, he headed for the golf course and played a round with three like-minded buddies.

His goal was smart: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Reasonable, and Timed.

He achieved it step by step, and each step was a goal in itself. He chose a job with a pension attached. He lived in a community with year-round golfing weather. He joined a golf club.

I’m not suggesting that golf was his only goal. He got a job that paid well enough to support his wife and children. They lived in his wife’s small hometown, which was a pleasant, safe, affordable place to raise a family. He made friends who shared his pleasure in the challenge and camaraderie of the sport and they helped recreate a course after the war. All of those things supported other areas of his life, and as a bonus they made his dream of golfing five days a week reasonable and achievable.

In his new book Who Dares Wins, author and former Green Beret Bob Mayer talks a lot about goals and one of his caveats is that a goal must include a positive verb, an action that you can control, and an external, visible outcome.

In Sherry’s case, she wanted to be retired, a state of being rather than an action. No wonder it wasn’t enough for her. Uncle Bill, on the other hand, wanted to play – that’s a very active verb.

If what Sherry had wanted was simply not to go to work any more, that’s a negative and doesn’t help her. She’s still left with those eight hours a day to fill. If she wanted to read her way through the fiction stacks at the local library – now that’s a goal.

Hm. I’ll have to think about adopting that one myself. It’s the timing that I’ll have to work on: by the time I’m sixty? Eighty? Dead? And what about all the new acquisitions every year? By the time I finish ten books there’ll be ten new ones added to the hundreds or thousands I still haven’t read… Perhaps this isn’t such a great idea.

A book a week. No, a novel a week. At least one novel every week. For the rest of my life.

This goal is growing on me.

Excuse me. I have to go to the bookstore now.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Change your shoes, change your life


Stories are all about change. The books and movies we enjoy the most are those that show people becoming stronger or happier or more connected with others.

The British movie Kinky Boots, for example, has all of those elements woven together like a beautiful huarache. There are the parallel stories of two people who felt they disappointed their fathers, there’s romance, redemption and healing. Above all, there’s change: disasters that trigger personal growth that leads to business moves….

According to David Noer’s book Breaking Free, there are four basic character types when it comes to changeability in the workplace.

At the beginning of Kinky Boots, Charlie seems to be a classic Overwhelmed: when his world falls apart he is incapable of seeing any solutions, let alone implementing them.

“What can I do?” he hopelessly asks each factory worker as he lays them off, one after another.

Lauren is the only one who has an answer. 


Change your product, she snaps at him. Find a new market.

Lauren is a Learner. She’s innovative, thinks outside the shoebox, and has enough optimism to draw others along with her.

Lola is Entrenched in her life as a very successful drag queen; we can see she’s no longer happy in her rut but she isn’t even trying to climb out of it. When Charlie and Lauren present her with a chance to try something new, though, she is more than capable of shoehorning herself into the job.

These three characters show the basics of Noer’s model.

The Overwhelmed need to be given projects in which their old skills are useful, and to work with optimists whose energy can carry them along. The Entrenched are more able to adapt, so they benefit from practicing new behaviors in safe situations, especially if they’re surrounded by creative optimists. Learners are already creative, optimistic and energetic; they need to protect themselves from burnout, from being drained by others. Lauren, for example, didn’t change much in the course of Kinky Boots – she didn’t need to. The journey was Charlie’s and Lola’s – Lauren’s role was to be a catalyst and guide.

Although Charlie’s fiancĂ©e Nicola also remains the same throughout the movie, she isn’t a Learner. She is what Noer calls a BSer: comfortable with change, but not truly capable of it. She was happy to move to a new city and a different job, but she didn’t grow as a person.

“I can’t change what I want,” she told Charlie bluntly.

By the end of the film Charlie has stepped from the old sneakers of the apparently Overwhelmed into the brogues of a Learner, and Lola has climbed from her singin’and dancin’ rut to creative heights – wearing four-inch heels.

But, you say, it’s just a story.

Not entirely. Kinky Boots is based on real events and you know what they say: the difference between fiction and reality is that fiction has to make sense. 

That doesn’t make it any less true.


Friday, July 10, 2009

No ruts, please

“A change is as good as a rest.” 

That’s what my grandmother said, a woman who went from a suburban home to her husband’s farm, from a nuclear family of three brothers to an extended family of dozens of brothers- and sisters-in-law, from a short-lived gig as a nursing student to a career as farm wife and mother of five.

Did she say that because she had to, in order to make her world work? Or did she really believe it?

According to David Noer in his book Breaking Free, people fit into one of four categories when it comes to change.

The largest group is made up of people who are uncomfortable with change and are unable to alter their behaviour when the world shifts. As much as 50 to 60 percent of the workforce in some organizations fits into this group. Noer calls them the Overwhelmed because in times of transition, these people feel like they’re drowning. They’re unhappy and fearful of mistakes, avoiding real issues while they retreat to previous patterns of behaviour and hope that things will return to the good old days. They equate activity with learning and can be passive-aggressive or downright abusive, dragging others down with them.

The second-largest group is the Entrenched. These people are capable of learning new skills, but aren’t comfortable with change: they like their ruts so they keep applying their old skills in new situations. They’re more productive than the Overwhelmed, but not as productive as they’d like to be.

The BSers can be as much as 10 or 15 percent of a company’s workforce. They are comfortable with the need for change but don’t behave appropriately during transitions. They’re confident in every situation, often making quick, clear and articulate decisions, but they overestimate their own strengths and don’t see their weaknesses so the decisions can be disastrously wrong.

Learners, on the other hand, are very comfortable with external change and have a strong ability to adapt their own behaviour. They engage with real issues and grow during times of transition.

I suspect that there’s some overlap of traits in most of us. I see a bit of Overwhelmed and Entrenched in myself; there are times when the mere idea of change makes me feel like I’m floundering, and sometimes I know I can learn new tricks if I do the hard work, but I don’t wanna.

I like to think that’s normal.

However, I’m pretty sure I’m not a BSer. I am all too aware of my weaknesses.

A Learner is what I aspire to be. Comfortable with change…well, I accept its constancy. Does that count? And the more new skills I learn, the easier it is to embrace the next lot.

During busy periods – when I’m teaching and writing freelance articles and working on a novel and managing a household and taking a class and volunteering and riding my bike everywhere – sometimes I think a change might be as good as a rest. A change to life with a gardening service, perhaps. And a driver.

Even in her old age, in a comfortable chair with a glass of sherry at hand, Grandma embraced change. She switched back and forth between Hockey Night in Canada and Lawrence Welk. She showed me the importance of flexibility. 

I’m thinking of alternating The Big Easy with Firefly.

A change, as Grandma would say, is as good as a rest. But then, so is a rest.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Travellin' Plans

The bumper sticker on the back of an Odyssey minivan said, “Where are we going? And why am I in this handbasket?”

After I finished laughing I wondered, not for the first time, “What the hell is a handbasket? And why do people travel in them?”

But I came up empty. None of my three dictionaries – English, Canadian, or American – held a definition. The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations and Wikipedia wove no tales of idiom origin.

What I do know is the meaning of "going to hell in a handbasket": the situation is deteriorating fast and the person in the tote has no control over it.

But since a handbasket is, as far as I can tell, simply a basket carried by hand, how fast can it be going? Why not jump out, is what I want to know. Clearly, there’s more going on in this phrase than Wiki and I understand.

So for now I’ve moved on, just like the handbasket that has evolved into a two-tonne metal tube with airbags, a six-cylinder engine, seating for seven, and a classical reference to the fallout from the Trojan war.

If Ulysses is at the wheel it might be a bumpy ride.

On the up side, it’ll be a long one.