Friday, October 31, 2014

Good News: We're Going to Work Together on This!

Nothing strikes fear into men, women and children like the prospect of a "group project." Has anyone of above average intelligence with a decent work ethic ever been psyched to hear those two words? As children, we learn early on in our education, that "group project" is code for a dysfunctional team approach that leaves everyone unhappy except for the biggest slacker. Schools torture students with group projects throughout their elementary, middle and high school years, to prepare them for more of the same in college. In college, group assignments are intended to reflect "the real world" in which working well in teams is vital to a company's success. Once we arrive in the working world, we lie to our employers when we state in our cover letter that we're "team players." Of course, there is the possibility that I'm the odd man out on this and the rest of you crave such project-based camaraderie, but my sense is that I'm not alone in preferring a stroll over hot coals to working on a team.

It's quite likely that it's the Type As among you who are nodding your heads in agreement while enduring flashbacks of evenings spent redoing a member's contribution to the "group" project. Type As want nothing more than to finish the work efficiently, correctly and without other humans mucking things up. Type As want control and that's exactly what's lacking when the assignment calls for teamwork. Even when you respect your group members and, in general, find them to be competent human beings, you're still likely to mutter, "I'd rather do it myself."

In the past year, I have been reminded several times of the evil that is group projects. I experienced sympathy pains when my colleague Kelly announced that she was working on such an assignment in one of her MBA courses. On another occasion I met with a fairly large group of school parents who are going to work together to put on a successful fundraising event. This "project" revealed an interesting dynamic that I would title "The Swarthmore Syndrome." The way it works is that all the parents from Swarthmore know best. 'Nuff said.

Perhaps the pinnacle of my personal group-based experiences, however, have been two years worth of committee and sessions meetings at church where the unfortunate among us were called into service to re-envision and rebuild our fellowship. I love my church family dearly, but putting Christians together in groups leads to the longest, most drawn out processes ever, accompanied by hushed side conversations, overcommittment by 20% of the frozen chosen, discussions ad nauseam, a great deal of private grumbling, and a lot of public prayer. I think the only thing that could make the experience bearable would be providing adult beverages during meetings, but that would be in violation of the new drug and alcohol policy.

Lest we let the workplace off the group project hot seat, I'd have to say that this is where you're going to find the widest range of so-called team contributors. I suppose this is a result of the salary element. Now, you might think that a paycheck would make a noticeably positive difference in teamwork participation, but based on my personal experiences of the past twenty years, you would be mistaken. In fact, to help those of you are just now entering the workforce, I've created this simple guide to identifying those you may encounter on your team:

  • The Naysayer: It can’t be done. 
  • The Boxer: Don’t ask me to think outside of it.
  • The Historian: That’s not the way we’ve done it in the past.
  • The Soother: Don’t worry about it being perfect, no one gets fired here.
  • The Amnesiac:  If we just ignore it, the boss soon will forget he even gave us the project.
  • The Suck Up: Quick to volunteer, less quick to work, quick to offer to present it to the boss.
  • The Millennial: Assigned to task, encounters first obstacle, commences whining.
  • The Thrill Seeker: It won't take long. We'll get around to it.  
  • The Meet-aholic: Let's meet to discuss next steps, again. I'll bring donuts.
  • The Bucker: It’s not my job.
  • The Pre-Retiree: Been there, done that. It is what it is. 
  • The Once and Done: I tried. It didn’t work. Oh well.
  • The Know-it-All: Type A without social skills.
  • The Fantasizer: Let's try to run a six-month television ad campaign with the $200 in our marketing budget.
  • Frankie Goes to Hollywood (a.k.a.: "Relax, Don't Do It"): There’s always tomorrow. I’m heading home. I've had enough for today. 

And then there's my personal favorite:

  • The Dismisser: The beyond-ballsy colleague who simply declines when presented with an "opportunity" to take on a new project. 
A colleague and friend of mine (someone whom I'm delighted to work with), sent me this helpful venn diagram. Please refer to it the next time you're asked to lead a team. You'll save yourself a good deal of pain and may actually find you enjoy the group project experience!

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night

I have a doctor's appointment this morning. This is not one of those that you schedule months in advance for your regular checkup. This is one of those where you call and tell them you really need to see the doctor now

I'm not ill, exactly, I just get the sense that something's not right (no smart ass comments, please). For weeks I've been going to bed around 9 p.m. (occasionally earlier), and even though I sleep between 9-10 hours a night, there are still days where I honestly don't know how I'm going to keep my head from hitting the desk in the middle of the afternoon. Then there are my aches and pains. Everyday, even if it's been a week since my last workout, I find there's always something that hurts.

The impetus for today's appointment, however, is my memory loss. While I've had plenty of those "walk into a room and have no idea why" experiences, lately I find myself forgetting something in a matter of seconds. Usually it's harmless enough: Did I put on deodorant just five seconds ago? A sniff solves that mystery. But two nights ago I took my daily medication, which I keep in an old-person daily pill case, and literally seconds later I couldn't remember if I had already taken it. I looked at the day on the pill case and for some reason I was completely befuddled. Without much thought, I took my daily medication. Again. As a result, I woke up at 3:30 a.m., developed a serious case of sweating and trembling hands, and cried. Obviously anti-depressants do NOT make you happier if you take more of them than prescribed. 

So yes, I'm seeing the doctor today and while my self-diagnosis is Lyme's disease (based on the fatigue and aches and pains, plus the weird red spot on my stomach, and the fact that I've found ticks in the house courtesy of the cat), I can almost guarantee that the doctor will put fatigue, aches and pains, and forgetfulness together and diagnosis me with "growing old." He's said it before. Sometimes I think he doesn't take me seriously. I know one of you is going to tell me to find a new doctor, but this appears to be a common problem (hmm...the doctor's being nonchalant or the growing old thing?). 

This past summer, my father fell off the dock in the marina next to his boat. He seriously bruised one side of his torso and thought he had broken a finger. A visit to his physician resulted in an exchange that went something like this:

Doc: What happened?
Dad: Well, I fell stepping onto the dock. I think...
Doc: (cutting him off) You fell because you're getting older. You think you can still do all the things you used to do and the reality is that you can't. You need to slow down.

My father told me later that what he was about to tell the doctor, before he was rudely interrupted, was that he'd had a dizzy spell, which obviously contributed to the fall. Was the dizzy spell the result of age or an entirely separate issue that the doctor took no time to diagnose?

My father and I are alike in many ways, including our refusal to "go gentle into that good night." My dad is 73-years old and hasn't given up a single thing that I've always known him to do. I guarantee that if I could get my hands on a set of water skis and a boat to tow him, he'd happily give it a go. About the only thing he's saying no to these days is amusement park rides, and that happens to most of us when we hit our 40s and spinning things make us want to puke.

Riding roller coasters and boogie boarding are my two main "I am not too old" holdouts. The roller coasters usually leave me needing a chiropractor, and the boogie board may plant me face down in the sand (if I actually manage to catch a wave), but I refuse to say no to what have been sources of great pleasure since I was a kid. My greatest fear is that if I skip just one summer at the amusement park or decline one afternoon in the ocean, I may never return to them again. 

The more seniors I meet, the more I believe that, while growing older is inevitable, there's nothing to say that we have to "get old." We can't control the years, but we do have a say in how we live them. The topic of our aging parents came up in a recent conversation with friends, and the general consensus was that attitude has almost as much to do with the quality of life in our later years as our physical health. I shared about my parents, and my friend told me about his mom, who recently passed away, but whose zest for life had made her such a joy to spend time with. Conversely, his father, who is in fine health, has relegated himself to old man status. 

Some folks seemingly decide overnight that they can no longer do what they did before, and they stop living in the fullest sense of the word. I'm not saying that those who truly can't should fake it, or put themselves or others in harm's way by doing what they should no longer do, but when it's fear that shuts us down, it's sad. 

I often find myself wondering, when I'm old (what age is that exactly?) will I still...

  • Put my feet up on the dashboard of the car or stick them out the window?
  • Dance around the kitchen to make my kids laugh (at me, not with me)?
  • Eat raw cookie dough and lick the spoon when Abby makes cake or icing?
  • Sing along at full volume with every song on the radio?
  • Laugh with complete abandon at funny movies, even in a theater full of people?
  • Hoot and holler at my grandkids' sporting events (if my mom is any indication, that would be "yes")?
  • Act in church skits, or maybe I'll have advanced to community theater by then?
  • Want to prove myself on water skis?

Well, it's about time for that doctor's appointment. I'm tempted to secretly tape the conversation. How much do you want to bet that he tells me I'm fine and that my symptoms are all part of getting old growing older? 

I'll be sure to let you know.

Friday, October 17, 2014

At Your Service

We Older folks tend to grumble about "young people," those teens and young adults who are seemingly minutes away from running the country right into the ground.
"They're lazy."
"They're whiners."
"They expect to have everything handed to them."
While these frustrating faces of the next generation do exist (and I'm sure our elders felt the same way about us), the one thing I can say about today's teens and young adults is that they do a better job of caring for others than my generation ever did. Personally, the concept of "service" wasn't even on my radar at that age, whereas kids today seem to grow up understanding and accepting the call to help those in need. For many, this begins when mom and dad ask party guests to bring an item for charity instead of a birthday gift (personally, the jury's still out on that one).
"The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others."                          -- Mahatma Gandhi
Today, service is a requirement for graduation from our high schools. It's part of what qualifies you for National Honor Society. It's what admissions folks expect to see on your college application. And here's the kicker: I know thousands of kids who continue to serve well after it benefits them on paper.

Okay, I don't know thousands of them personally, but I've seen them in action.

"Service" has been the name of the game in my world for the past few weeks. It started with St. Thomas of Villanova Day of Service (STVDS) on September 27, followed by our friends' Ride for Autism Speaks, then last weekend's Ann's Love Builds and the Ride to Conquer Cancer. This past week, Villanova students spent their fall break serving around the region and around the world. And, the entire 8th grade year at Abby's school is dedicated to supporting Cradles to Crayons.

Villanova University's commitment to service isn't just some warm and fuzzy phrase in the promotional material. It's the real deal. STVDS drew 4,300 students, faculty and staff who engaged in service at 140 sites in the greater Philadelphia area. Last weekend, 600 students gathered in St. Thomas of Villanova Church for a blessing and dedication before leaving for their fall service trips.

Then there are my personal friends who do amazing things to care for others. The Fischers put together an annual ride that brings out dozens of bikers to benefit Autism Speaks, and youth are among the many volunteers. At Christmas, a party invitation comes with a request that we bring coats to donate to a local charity. (Not nearly as tacky as asking us to bring food.)

In honor of my friend Ann Bates who lost her battle with brain cancer three years ago this November, Ann's Love Builds continues its annual day of service in her memory. This year, more than 100 people turned out at six different work sites from Princeton to Media as a way of celebrating Ann's life and dedication to caring for others. I spent the morning at a home with 20+ youth and adults whose goal was to provide wheelchair access for a man who recently became a paraplegic. Work included gutter cleaning and guards, trench digging for drainage, and painting the home's basement. In North Philly, Princeton lacrosse players (Ann's husband Chris is the coach) worked at a homeless shelter. Tell me that wasn't a life changing experience for those young men, many of whom grew up having the best of everything.

At the same time Ann's Love was building, Rob was riding his bike, over 130 miles in two days, to raise funds and awareness for cancer research. A fitting tribute to Ann and the millions who lose their battle with cancer each year.

These days, when we consider the state of our country and the world, what first comes to mind are the negatives: our government, debt, terrorism, the economy, ebola, hunger, violence, you name it. It's nice to be able to point to the good that is happening in communities everywhere, thanks to a new generation's commitment to care.

  • Teenagers volunteer 2.4 billion hours annually – worth $34.3 billion to the US economy.
  • Youth volunteering has increased steadily over the past ten years, with 30% of youth participating in volunteer activities at least once a month in 2000. 
  • Out of 13.3 million youth, 59.3% volunteer an average of 3.5 hours per week, versus 49% of the adult population 
Benefits of Volunteering:

  • Youth who volunteer just one hour or more a week are 50% less likely to abuse alcohol, cigarettes, become pregnant, or engage other destructive behavior.
  • Teens say the benefits received from volunteering are: Learning to respect others; learning to be helpful and kind; learning to understand people who are different; developing leadership skills, becoming more patient, and better understanding of citizenship.
  • Youth who volunteer are more likely to do well in school, graduate and vote.
  • Young people involved in community service are more likely to have a strong work ethic as an adult.
  • Youth who volunteer are three times more likely to volunteer as adults.
  • 81% of Americans who have volunteer experiences when they are young give to charitable organizations as adults.
"The life of a man consists not in seeing visions and in dreaming dreams,
but in active charity and in willing service
-- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Thursday, October 9, 2014

I Feel the Need, the Need to Please

You know how some people let everything roll off their back, never taking offense or worrying about what others think? Well, I'm at the other end of the spectrumI take everything personally, at least as it relates to suggestions, recommendations or choices I make that affect others. This is especially evident when it comes to entertainment and leisure time options, which clearly makes this particular aspect of my neuroses of great importance (or at least of mild interest for a blog post). Some examples:
  • I ask my husband or a friend to accompany me to a movie of my choosing. I then worry about whether they like it, thereby rendering myself unable to enjoy the film.
  • I encourage a friend to read a book that I thought was terrific. They tell me later that they tried for months to get into it and finally gave up. I am now partner to the crime of spending too much time on a lousy read when there are gazillions of other books that that individual could have been spending time with.
  • I laugh hysterically (a frequent occurrence) at the TV show I'm watching. I take occasional glances at Rob, seated on the couch next to me, to see whether he's even cracking a smile. I feel stupid if he's not equally amused. 
  • I invite a friend to church (it could happen!) and the pastor's sermon is mediocre at best. I am annoyed with the pastor myself for choosing this particular Sunday to bring a guest, and decide I shall never again be party to Christian outreach or evangelism.
  • I recommend a restaurant for dinner that I generally enjoy. The service is terrible and the food is mediocre at best. I'm embarrassed and feel badly and consider paying for my friend's meal (but then reject the idea because I'm cheap).
In one final, wacky example, I actually feel lousy if I introduce one friend to another friend and they don't exactly hit it off. Then I'm forced to decide which friend is most likely to blame and whether I need to dump the below average friend. Awkward.
The one thing these examples have in common is that the product or service (or person) being delivered has not been produced by me. I experience guilt and regret for recommendations that miss the mark, however, I am not actually responsible for the content. But when I am...

If I'm this loony about suggestions and recommendations, you can imagine my reaction when something I have personally created is not appreciated or enjoyed. Blog posts, for example. You know how it hurts my feelings when you don't "like" them. And do you have any idea how much a comment on the blog itself would mean to me? We've talked about this before. Let's go people. 

Technology has undoubtedly affected our sense of self. We determine our self worth by the number of likes, shares, favorites and comments we receive on any given day. Consider the selfies that teenage girls post on Instagram. Some experts see them as self-esteem boosters that help girls determine the identity they feel most comfortable with. It's all contingent, however, on the undeniable power of likes and retweets. An article in Time magazine reported:
"For a teenage girl, receiving likes on Instagram or Facebook can be seen as an endorsement that they are beautiful, from people who are within their social circle. Comments are there to compliment one’s appearance in a way that doesn't normally happen in a typical personal encounter."
Teen Vogue (of all places) notes that likes and comments that build self-esteem can crush it as well:
"After all, if two photos are postedthe first with nine likes and the second with two likes, some girls could perceive this as feeling less valued."  
But lest we get too serious, let's bring this back to me and my issues. Aside from my blog posts, I've become truly sensitive to the loss of "likes" and followers for the social media that I manage for my employer. The joy of adding 19 new fans can be completely overshadowed by losing one. My spirit is completely crushed when a reader opts out of receiving an e-newsletter that I produce. Every day is just another opportunity for virtual rejection.

What's rather interesting in this crazy self-absorbed analysis, is that, when it comes to me as a person, I'm increasingly less affected by others' opinions. With the exception of being perceived as unkind or just plain unlikable (you cut me deep, Shrek; you cut me very deep), I don't care so much what others think about me personally. As long as my Facebook likes don't dip below 500, I figure I'm okay. But seriously, if someone considers me outspoken (session members at church), obnoxious (other soccer moms), or a party pooper (anyone who's attended a party that I left early), I can shrug it off with a "who needs them anyway?" It just so happens that at this very moment, the issue of what others think is causing a disagreement between Rob and me. Since he loves when I bring him into my blog, allow me to explain:

Every October for the past several years, Rob and I have hosted a bonfire with friends. And since the beginning, invites to this shindig have included a "what to bring" list for guests. The deal has been that we provide the beer, chili, hot dogs and fire, and guests sign up to contribute food and drinks including soda, chips, soft pretzels, salads, finger food, desserts, water bottles, etc. This approach offers several benefits:
  1. I don't need to cook. I don't like cooking and my cooking stinks, so everyone wins when I don't do it.
  2. I don't have to spend hundreds of dollars on food and drink. Kegs are expensive enough.
  3. I don't have to respond to dozens of "what should I bring" inquiries that leave me wondering what guests really will bring, thereby requiring me to cover all bases just to be safe.
  4. No one feels guilty taking advantage of the generous donation of my yard debris to build an illegal fire.
The issue is that Rob, after having had this party for many years, now informs me that he thinks asking guests to bring something is tacky. And this/my tackiness is the reason why he always invites his coworkers personally rather than allowing me to include them on the Evite. I think Rob is a snob, as is any coworker or friend who is turned off by my request. Frankly, if that's your reaction, don't come. I can't imagine that any of my true friends, the people I most enjoy spending time with, think or feel that way.

I know my sister agrees with Rob. She would never have a party and ask people to bring something, but then my sister is a snob, too. What I want to know is how the rest of you feel. Do you think this is inappropriate, given the setting and casual nature of the event (we're not talking about a cocktail party, for which I would only request bottles of wine :-))? 

Since having learned how Rob feels about this, I am childishly refusing to have anything to do with the bonfire. If he thinks we shouldn't ask guests to chip in (literally!), then he can handle the whole megillah and I'll protest by going to the movies.  

I realize that it's ironic to ask who you think is right after trying to convince myself you that I don't care what others think of me personally. But alas, the future of this much-loved event rests on your response. No pressure.