Some Thoughts to close 2012


I haven’t had the chance to write up a post since election day; but, I wanted to say something before the end of the year.  So, I have two things.

First, if you are a regular reader, you know how much I dig the writings/speeches given by Brene Brown.  There is part of me who really cringes at anything that reeks of self help ramblings without some science behind it and Ms. Brown brings the science.  And she cuts through the mixed messages and gets right to the core of how we operate.  I love that.  I ran across an article by her that sums up bullying way better than I ever could.  I’m a believer that we live in a bully culture and encourage bully behavior and then are surprised when kids and adults “take it too far.”   We like to think we are a country of people that love the underdogs; but, in reality, we love our bullies even more.  Here’s a small excerpt:

Whether we are a sweaty-palmed 7th grader navigating a hostile cafeteria, or a laid-off worker trying to make a mortgage payment, or a young mother waiting for mammogram results, feeling vulnerable, imperfect and afraid is human. It is when we lose our capacity to hold space for these struggles that we become dangerous. We can legislate behavior all day long, but true compassion comes from a tender and vulnerable place where we understand how inextricably connected we are.

From :  The Cruelty Crisis: Bullying Isn’t a School Problem, It’s a National Pastime by Brene Brown.  Published on Psychology Today ( on October 31, 2010.

Read that article and pay special attention to the last paragraph.

Secondly, recently a few friends have been doing 30 or even 40 days of gratitude on Facebook.  I’m going to admit something.   As a (somewhat) reformed  eye roller,  I resist the urge to chalk all of this gratitude up to some touchy feelie, new agey bunk.  But, I also know that I feel better when I focus on the things I can be grateful for.  I feel better when I focus on seeing the good.

The amazing thing about gratitude is it can be cultivated, practiced and even developed as a reaction and the results are rather amazing.  I recently presented a program on leading with compassion.  I gave the audience a short exercise to try that several people talked to me about afterwards. So, I altered it and decided to share it with you here.

You will need a piece of paper, a pen, a quiet moment and the willingness to keep your mind open.

Think of the person at your job who most drives you crazy.  Close your eyes.  Think of their face.  Take note of the feelings that arise and sit with them for a moment.  Okay.  You are most likely sitting with negative feelings.  Imagine all those feelings are written up on chalkboard.  If you really dislike this person, your chalkboard is probably full, every inch of space being used.  In your mind, see your chalkboard filled with all of those feelings, now take an eraser and erase them.  Get that eraser into every corner until there is just chalk dust up on your imaginary board.  Great.  Now lets get started.

  1. Think of your person.
  2. Write down 3 things they are good at.  This can be anything.  Maybe they keep their desk neat.  Perhaps they are prompt.  Even if you have to dig deep, write down 3 things.
  3. Write down one thing you would miss if the person didn’t come to work anymore.  You have to write down one thing.  You can do it.  Even the most annoying, crazy person offers something that is worthy of missing.
  4. Write down one thing YOU can do to help this person succeed.

Now I want you to set down your pen, close your eyes and take a couple of calming breaths.  Relax your shoulders.  Think of your person.  Did your heart soften towards them a wee bit?  Maybe it softened a lot.  Take note of the new feelings.

I firmly believe, as a supervisor, my job is not to get people to do what I want; but, it is to help them succeed.  As a colleague, it is to help my coworkers succeed.  I understand that at times, this is impossible and that with really, really toxic people, the best course of action is to figure out ways to just reduce their toxicity.

Don’t mistake a softening heart for losing ground or giving in.  It is just about understanding that your person is just another person in the world navigating through the ups and downs of life and struggling with things as you sometimes struggle.  Try not to get bogged down with what other people are doing and focus on the things that are in your control.

2012 is winding down and I’ve heard so many people say that it was a bad year for them.  If this is you, I want you to immediately sit down and write a list of 10 things that were good about 2012.  Go!  Do it!  Enter 2013 thinking, wow, I found 10 good things about 2012, 2013 is going to be even better!

I’ve struggled to find the balances I need in my life so that I can thrive in NYC.  I think maybe I’ve spent a good portion of the year feeling a bit tired and foggy headed; but, 2012 is year that goes down in my personal history as a watershed year.  I got married.  I had this amazing, sweet wedding at an apple orchard in Vermont that is owned by Anya’s cousin and her family.  We were surrounded by people that love and support us.  There was a dude with a guitar and ten gallon hat singing Neil Young’s Heart of Gold.  Later, with his band, they did covers of Johnny Cash and other twangy greats.   After the ceremony and the toasts, with the party just getting into gear,  I looked over the lawn and saw my friend Ann, carrying a croquet mallet in one hand and a wine glass in the other, her pretty green dress popping against the blue sky and I thought, This is perfect.  Did everything go as planned?  Ha!  Of course not.  Did we panic and find someone to blame?  Hell no!  There was pie and happy people and this amazing hard cider from the orchard and the most perfect weather of the whole summer and there was this incredible, extraordinary woman who makes me laugh, reminds me not to worry so much, accepts me just the way I am and pretty much takes my breath away every day.  That is perfect and by perfect, I mean perfectly imperfect.  It truly is a beautiful life.

Surviving the Rat Race

In the Library with the Lead Pipe recently posted an article that compared running a marathon with working in the library because both are endeavors where we need to pace ourselves to avoid fatigue and burnout.  Go read this article. It provides a brief overview of current brain science that might surprise you.

Fatigue and burnout are poison in the well.  They affect our abilities to be productive at work and home.  They affect our ability to communicate and negotiate with coworkers and friends and family. They affect our ability to make decisions and think things through effectively.

Here’s an exercise:

Write down 5 things you know you need to do in order to think more clearly, be more patient and find joy in your work.  Here’s what mine might look like.

1. 8-9 hours of sleep

2. Caffeine

3. Moderate exercise

4. Meditation

5. Healthy eating.

These should be things you have control of; so, not things like: get my kid to pick up his laundry.  You already know what you need to be calmer and happier at work.  You probably won’t be able to do all 5 all the time; but, make sure you are trying for 2-3 of them all the time.  Now commit yourself to doing them.

This might seem simplistic and it is really.  But, then why is it so hard to do the things we know we should be doing?  For me, sleep is my number one factor in having a good quality of life.  I have a friend who needs more than moderate exercise, pretty much everyday, in order to burn off the stress of working in a hospital.  She knows that she feels better and is happier when she gets home to her family.  She also told me that she noticed around 3pm everyday she was feeling sad and a bit down and wondered if it had to do with something in her eating habits.  She started eating a small handful of almonds at about 2:30 and she avoided the down turn in mood.  Eating almonds in the afternoon should be on her list.

I also need caffeine.  I’m weening myself down to one cup in the morning; but, in the big picture, caffeine (in moderation) is a basically harmless method of boosting focus, although temporary.  I have found it speeds up my brain’s transition from sleep to having the executive function perform at a level I need it to.  I suspect there are natural ways to help with this; but, at this point the caffeine works.

I also know that although meditation is the thing that helps me the most behind sleep, I do it the least which is something I would like to change.  I hit 3-4 things on my list everyday and would like to get that even higher.

Make the list.  Really think about it.  Put it somewhere where you can see it everyday.  You already know what you should be doing.  You don’t need a class or a book or a guru, although sometimes those things help with motivation.
One last piece of advice:  This is not another opportunity to assess your failure to reach a goal.  At the end of the day, if you only hit one congratulate yourself on hitting one.  That’s it.  This is something to shoot for and the reward is you feel better or you have more patience in frustrating situations or more energy to listen to your family’s stories when you get home.  If saying NO is on your list, the reward might be that you get to give your work projects the attention they deserve without feeling like you have spread yourself too thin.  This is your list; only you know what needs to go on it.

Sit. Ann, Sit.

My dog Henry lunged at the dog food as it left the scoop and fell towards his bowl.  I hate when he does this and immediately corrected him.  “Sit, Henry, Sit.”  He sat and I continued putting the food in his bowl.  He  waited for me to release him with an okay and then started eating.

Later I was thinking about this in context of my own meditation practice.  I really just wanted to tell myself:  Sit, Ann, Sit!  I have not maintained any sort of continuity in my practice and even though I know it will benefit me, I still have not done anything when really all I need to do is just sit.  Of course if it was that simple, we’d all be doing it.

A few weeks ago, I ran across Susan Piver’s Open Heart Project, which she started last year to help people learn meditation.  Starting in June, in addition to the free, ongoing instruction she offers through the project, there will be a more in depth training for what I think is a very reasonable annual fee.

I have been following along since I signed up for the newsletter and have found her style both appealing and accessible.  I’ve already turned a few friends on to it.

Why am I telling you all of this?  Well, since starting Civil Civil Servant I have had people ask me about meditation and while I have taught a couple of people some very basic techniques, I mostly encourage them to try a meditation class.  You don’t have to go to a Buddhist organization to learn meditation.  Some folks learn at a yoga class, or take a course through community education or learn in a stress reduction class.  I think it’s nice to have an ongoing instructor because sometimes things come up in your practice and you have questions.

The instruction offered through the Open Heart Project is quite good and because it is something you learn online, you don’t even have to feel uncomfortable in front of other people.  I have felt uncomfortable going to a  new place to meditate; so, I know that feeling.  This let’s you try it out in a safe, easy way.

So.  Check it out.  It might be the introduction to meditation you’ve been hoping to find.

And if you need a good reason.  Maintaining a meditation practice in study after study has been found to reduce stress and anxiety, relieve symptoms of depression, help control chronic pain, improve immune system function, lower blood pressure and improve cardiovascular health.  Studies have connected meditation with improved ability to concentrate, improved sleep and reduction of memory loss as one ages.  It can help you with substance abuse problems, depression and hyperactivity.  And really, the research in this area is young.  We are just starting to learn all the startling and significant benefits.

Good luck!

Unplug. Live a little.

It’s that time again:  The National Day of Unplugging is almost upon us.   Reboot, a Jewish creative community of “thought-leaders created The Sabbath Manifesto which includes 10 core principles and is modeled after the Slow Movement.  In 2010 they started the National Day asked people to take the pledge:  to unplug from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday.  This year it takes place March 23-24.

I love this project.  It is a great reminder to slow down, stop texting and checking e-mail a million times.  I’ve talked  before about unplugging and how when I gave up my television my house was miraculously cleaner.  Now, television has seeped back into my life through my laptop and between Hulu and streaming Netflix I spend way too much time engaged with a thing instead of another person or my own thoughts.

A lot has changed for me since last year’s post on this topic.  I moved into the city and don’t live alone anymore.  I actually think this has altered my engagement with technology a bit.  I spend way less time on Facebook and actually hardly ever check it.  I also spend less time texting in the evening because the person I texted the most is now a few feet away.

One thing I worry about is that we’ll become one of those couples that sits next to each other on the couch, each engaged in our own laptop.  This rarely happens; but, I really want to make sure it never starts.

One of the things I noticed right away about Anya, on our first date, was that I never saw her phone.  I had gone on several dates where my date would check texts or lie their phone on the table, just in case.  I love the graphic at the top of this post.  If you click on it, it will take you to Uncommon Goods, where you can purchase the “phonekerchief” a handkerchief that actually blocks cell signals.  I think the charming thing about that sentiment is that while to some it may seem old fashioned, it comes down to just being focused and present when you are with others and there is nothing old fashioned about that.

I’m getting married this Summer (thanks Governor Cuomo!) and I had actually already decided that I would not be engaged with a phone on that day.  I’m also trying to find a little lake house near the orchard where we are getting married that we can rent for a week and just relax.  I’m a little bit amazed by the places that boast of high speed internet and satellite television.  I want peace and quiet and fun with Anya and our family and friends.  There will be no tweeting from the reception or the altar!

Give the National Day of Unplugging a shot.  It’s 24 hours.  Here’s my plan based on the ten principles.

  1. Avoid my laptop.  Only answer my phone if its my parents calling.  No email. No surfing. No TV or movie watching. Old school radio is fine.
  2. Hangout with Anya and a friend.  Snuggle and walk with Henry.
  3. Walk with Henry and finally get to the Y for some swimming.  Cook great meals.
  4. Besides Henry’s walks, hanging on the coffee shop patio and reading sounds great.
  5. I have no plans for commerce other than perhaps that coffee on the patio!
  6. Candles are a fine idea.  I’m not a candle person; but, Anya was definitely gotten me on track with candles.
  7. Not much of a drinker.  Perhaps some tea on the front stoop.
  8. I have pretty much refused to get into any habit that involves me eating while watching movies/tv; so, a nice home cooked meal with Anya happens pretty frequently and will happen again this Friday.
  9. Finding silence can sometimes be hard in Bed-Stuy.  We tossed around the idea of getting up early on Saturday and heading to the beach.  I’m sure to find some silence there.
  10. I’ll think on this one:  give back.  I’m sure I can figure out a creative way to meet this challenge.

You Don’t Need a Cape to Be a Superhero.

What is the recipe for success in any job?  I stumbled upon this great article by Chris Guillebeau, How to Stand Out in Any Job.   While I think his ideas have some obstacle in some situations, the spirit of these ideas and the practical applications are fantastic.  I encourage you to read his article and wander around his site.  There are some real gems there.

I want to bounce off his 8 principles for becoming a superhero in any job over the course of the next couple of weeks here on CCS.

“Never Turn Down a Project by saying, ‘that’s not in my job description’.”

This is huge.  I like that he put it first.  There are three ways to be at work:  open, closed and somewhere in between when it comes to being flexible in the workplace.  Guess which group gets the raises and promotions?  Guess which group has a better chance of getting positive responses to their requests?

In my varied work experiences in retail and the library world, I have hands down been happier when I have been open to being flexible about my job duties, etc.  This does not mean I take on jobs and responsibilities without asking for compensation for added work.  It does mean that when asked to handle something or do another task or take on some responsibility, I have almost always said yes, even if there is not added compensation.  I’m also not saying to take on TOO much responsibility so you lack balance in your life.  There is nothing wrong with answering a request to do something with an honest reply about workload and inquiry into your institution’s priorities.  Something along the lines of:

“I would love to help you.  I’m in the middle of projects X, Y, and Z; but, if you don’t mind Y and Z getting put on hold a bit; I think I can handle this new task with no problems.”

I have almost always been rewarded for pitching in when needed.  Sometimes the reward is monetary (raises and/or promotion), sometimes it’s a pat on the back and sometimes it has been support from others for my own pet projects.  Almost every time, I have been rewarded with the satisfaction of helping a coworker.

Happiness researchers (yes, there really are researchers who research happiness) have found a higher rate of happiness in people who are altruistic.  I think the same sort of satisfaction that you would get doing volunteer work or shoveling an elderly neighbor’s snow is available to you at work by being keeping an open mind about what your role is and how you should be spending your time.

I have encountered people who’s knee jerk reaction to being asked to do work outside of their job description is “no.”  You’ll win no friends and allies with this attitude.  That attitude benefits no one.  Most of you have experienced workplaces where there are some people who barely hold up their end and there are others who are continuously asked to work on new projects.  Some people see this as unfair, especially in a union environment when you might be making the same amount of money as the person who does less and is unwilling to help out.  But, even in these situations you win by stepping up because come promotion time or when an interesting position opens up you will be in a better spot to succeed in getting it.  You will also just have more opportunities at work:  more opportunities to learn, more opportunities to build your resume with varying experiences, more opportunities to network with colleagues and more opportunities to be challenged with interesting and fulfilling projects.

“That’s not my job.”  Don’t be that guy.  The guy who says that dreads getting out of bed and going to work every day.  The guy who says that only dreams of retirement.  The guy who says that is just putting in his time.  Our lives are way too precious for that kind of thinking.

Take this moment to ponder a line from Mary Oliver:

Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?

Mass Transit Meditation

photo: AZY_NYC via Flickr CC

I’ve been living and working in NYC for 3 months now and I’m still not quite used to it.  It’s a place of amazing chaos and stimulation.  Unfortunately, my brain doesn’t work well with noise and frenzy andthe visual assaults of such a large, vibrant city.  I’ve been thinking about different things I can do to lower stress and find some calm in the urban storm.

The other day, tired and slightly grouchy, I stood on the subway car, swaying with the motion and closed my eyes.  I said Metta for myself.

May I be happy.
May I be Healthy.
May I be free from physical pain.
May I be free from mental pain.
May I live my life with ease.

And I began to realize that even when I have not said this prayer for weeks or months, as soon as I begin, I can feel my body relax into it.  I challenged myself to say it on each subway ride and to choose to include the most annoying of my fellow riders.  Last night, I was on the train coming home after a fun evening of The Moth.  I happened to catch the train in the Village with handfuls of Halloween revelers including a woman riding solo.  She was right next to me in a very crowded train.  She was drunk.  She began talking loudly in a confrontational way about the various people surrounding her.  Commenting on people’s perfumes, clothing and perceived promiscuity.  She was looking for a fight.  Everyone ignored her.  I began reciting Metta, silently.  I wished her peace and happiness.  I wished her a safe passage home.  I wished her ease and freedom from her irritations.  I wished her freedom from the fear of suffering.  Over and over for the 20 minute ride, I wished things for her.  It was very calming to me and  I have to believe that all that love I sent her did some good.


New Beginnings

A lot of change is coming my way.  I have resigned my position at Middletown Township Public Library and accepted a position at Pace University in NYC.  I will be leaving my sanctuary in Asbury Park to move to Brooklyn and live with my partner.  I will no longer be an official civil servant; but, I will still be deeply committed to providing the best possible service and finding ways to improve my ability to lead in ways that inspire and encourage.

I have many mixed feelings about leaving Middletown which provided such a welcoming and soft place for me to land after being out of work for a couple of years while i recovered from my accident (detailed in other posts).  Moving into the city feels like such a new chapter in my life and one I’m very excited to begin.

I look forward to continuing this blog in the same manner I’ve been doing since the beginning and bringing new stories and thoughts on customer service.  On that note, I’ll share one quick story.  I stopped in a coffee shop about 3 or 4 blocks from my new apartment.  The barista asked me if I was having a lazy Sunday and I told her, “yes, though I am going to sign a lease right now.”  She asked if it was in the neighborhood and I said, “Yes, just a few blocks from here.”  She got a huge smile, welcomed me to the neighborhood and a young man stepped out from the back room to also welcome me to the neighborhood and assure me that I would “love it” here.  It was such a sweet moment and one I will not forget.  Clearly, these folks will be my coffee shop of choice and it doesn’t hurt that they make an extraordinary Americano.