Automate Your Job

Back when I worked for Yahoo, I had a friend who worked in collections. Marco’s job involved calling up potential customers after the software’s trial period ended. It was his goal to convert the person from a tire kicker into a regular customer. Unfortunately the success rate was low and the payoff was minimal. The job was also repetitive and boring.

Being a bright guy, Marco realized his job could be automated. He regularly played foosball with one of the engineers and brought up the topic one day. Within a week, the job was automated. Now when the trial period ended, users were directed to a page reading: “Would you like to continue using our software? Enter your credit card number here.” He removed himself from the transaction entirely.

Later I asked him, “Aren’t you afraid that you just automated yourself out of a job?” He answered, “I figured it was only a matter of time. And If I didn’t do it, someone else would.”

Funny how things work. We all recognized Marco’s skill in making something happen and he soon had a different, better job in the same department. Smart organizations realize you can always use someone who finds a better way to do things. Inefficiency kills.

Sometimes I wonder how many people working today would have Marco’s courage. It’s a risk, automating your job, and in a down economy – a big risk. But it’s one I would argue will always pay off. Not automating your job will not reduce the threat, it will only make it possible for someone else to do it.

Play Behind the Beat

At a former company we used to have a weekly meeting to discuss projects. We’d all go around the table explaining what we were working on. Every week one of the guys, Dan,  made me laugh when it was his turn.

Dan worked off-site and would dial into the meeting by phone. When it was Dan’s turn to talk, the organizer would say “Dan?” and Dan would take the longest pause before speaking you’d wonder if he was still on the line. The words “Dan?” would hang there and we’d all be left in suspense. There were moments when the organizer would be on the verge of saying “Dan? Dan, are you there?” before Dan started speaking.

It was a technique that never failed to get our attention and when Dan talked, it was the most unhurried presentation you’d heard in your life. It seemed like he had all the time in the world to consider every possibility. Weirdest thing? Dan was based in New York City, possibly the most impatient place in the world.

I laughed every time Dan pulled this presentation trick. I loved it so much that I incorporated into my own speaking style. Because of his slightly slower cadence, Dan came across as thoughtful and considerate even when he disagreed with you. His words carried more weight because they were at a slightly slower pace. It was not so slow that people thought he was dumb, rather he understood how to sound in control.

This is noteworthy because our culture tends to reward speed. Information travels quickly and it often feels like a race to quickly respond to everything. I once worked at a different company that was notoriously impatient. One of the salesman nearly ran over a pedestrian on his way to work because he was in such a hurry to get to the office. The salespeople were obnoxious, loud and pushy. This didn’t impress me – all of these people were about as respectable as fast-talking used car salesmen.

There is a certain musicality to our communication. I play the drums so I think of things in terms of “the beat.” The beat is the rhythm of a song, it’s what makes you tap your foot or nod your head. It comes at regular intervals and you can count along with it (ie.”1, 2, 3, 4″).

Here’s where it gets interesting – it’s very difficult to hit the beat on the drum exactly. There is no sustain in a snare drum. A snare drum makes a sharp short cracking sound. So timing the beat on a snare is like hitting a moving target with small stone. Most likely you won’t hit it exactly, you’ll either be slightly ahead or slightly behind it.

Some drummers are impatient and play ahead of the beat, they are always a little early. You can feel them pushing it. It’s never fast enough for these guys. In conversation, people who are ahead of the beat will interrupt you or change the subject abruptly.

What I like is Dan’s technique – playing a little behind the beat. I used to think this was being lazy. Now I see it as a sign of strength and confidence. The beat of a song is like the tide. It pushes us along whether we want to go there or not. Drummers who play a little behind are demonstrating their strength in resisting its pull. They are demonstrating patience. It makes them noteworthy, the person who evaluates and takes control over his surroundings.

I recently went to a Smashing Pumpkins concert down at BU. Their old drummer is long gone and he’s been replaced by some 19 year old whiz kid. The new drummer was technically brilliant, some of his drum fills were astounding, but he played so many of them the notes blurred into one long cacophony.

What a difference from the previous drummer, Jimmy Chamberlin. Chamberlin played with the wisdom of a master, he knew that silences speak. When he dropped a big fill, you were going to hear it. There was usually a big period of silence or a steady predictable beat preceding it.

Why do we have such a tendency to rush our speech? I have a theory it is because we are afraid of “the uncomfortable silence.” You know what I’m talking about – it’s those moments when two people have nothing to say to one another. For some reason, this is viewed as “wrong.” Anyone see the movie Pulp Fiction? There’s a scene in there where John Travolta and Uma Thurman are on an awkward date. A full 35 seconds pass in silence and it feels like an eternity. It is physically uncomfortable for the audience.

Uma Thurman breaks the silence by saying, “Don’t you hate that? The uncomfortable silence. Why do we feel the need to yak about nothing to feel comfortable?” It’s a good question. I’d argue we’ve developed such a fear about silences happening that the fear itself is worse than the experience.

Learning to pause means learning to be comfortable with the silences. This is something I only just recently discovered. If silences happen to me now, they aren’t uncomfortable. I take them as the natural rhythm of the conversation, not a big deal. Science has proven that being quiet for a couple minutes won’t kill you.

The truth is silences are useful. They can be used for dramatic effect or they can be used to draw up a thoughtful reply. We’ve all seen in Toastmasters that silence is preferable to hearing someone say “Um” or “Ya know.” What image do you want to convey in your speech – the fast-talking salesman who never pauses or the wise Buddha who gives insight with every word?

So I urge you to be like Dan – be a little slower with your delivery, more thoughtful and patient and get comfortable with the silences.

How To Want

Back when I used to row competitively, I set a goal for myself to pull a 2 kilometer race in 6 minutes 30 seconds. In pursuit of this ambitious goal, I wrote 6:30 in big numbers on a sheet of paper and taped it on the wall facing my rowing machine in the basement. Staring at this goal during every workout, I thought, would motivate me to hit it.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. The only thing that sheet of paper did was frustrate me. The more I wanted to hit the goal, the further away it seemed to recede. Eventually I stopped rowing altogether, to avoid looking at the sheet of paper.

Like most failures this was a learning experience. There was a time when I thought the key to getting something was to want it, to want it with all your willpower and heart. And this wanting would make it so through some sort of cosmic justice. Like having God himself answer your prayers – “Dave deserves this,” God would say as He granted my wish.

Besides, I thought, wanting was better than apathy and indifference. Apathy guarantees nothing will happen. Setting goals and wanting to hit them must do the opposite.

Close, but not quite. As my rowing experience showed, wanting things really hard makes them really not happen. There is too much of a fixation on the results and not enough on the path to get there. The approach I like now is the attitude of the Stoics. The Stoics believe we should do our best, work very hard, but not get too attached to the results. Stoics fixate on the process itself, not the outcome.

With this in mind, it’s best to act like an archer. The archer trains for years at his skill. When the competition starts, he sets his bow, he pulls the string and aims at the target. He concentrates as hard as he can. The instant he lets loose the arrow, it’s out of his hands. According to the Stoics, he might as well turn away before seeing the result. Of course he wants to hit the bullseye, but it makes no difference either way – he’s done his best.

Cures

The only thing I knew about Christian Science before I married my wife was they didn’t take medicine and sometimes their children died of curable sickness as a result. Because of this I didn’t hold them in the highest regard.

This religious avoidance of medicine seemed so strange to me back then. Medicine, I thought, is there to help us. It would be foolish to not take it. Now that I’m older and I’ve seen lives, including my own father’s, destroyed by drugs legal and otherwise, I have a much different view.

The way I see it – medicine acts like a crutch. Crutches can help you heal. But you must have the wisdom to recognize when you don’t need them any more and the strength to put them down. It’s very easy to become dependent on a crutch and forget how to walk normally.

My father did this with alcohol. It was his social crutch, a little helper to make conversation easier. The more he used it, the more he depended on it. Unfortunately it spiraled out of control and killed him by the time I was 20.

Painkillers, anti-anxiety drugs, antidepressants, depressants, stimulants, steroids – these are all shortcuts to doing real work. They are shortcuts which promise a panacea which instead, if you are not careful, deliver a bigger problem.

Don’t worry, I haven’t gone all religious. The Bible beaters are too judgmental for my taste. I drink beer, wine and booze. If I get sick, I go to the hospital and I take the drugs they prescribe. The same goes for our kids. But I share Christian Science’s skepticism towards drugs that are marketed to “cure” a problem. I’m all too wary of the consequences of dependence.

(one thing – Christian Science is not Scientology. Christian Science was founded by Mary Baker Eddy in Boston in the 19th century. Scientology was founded by a science fiction writer in New Jersey in the 1950s. They have literally nothing in common outside of having “scien-” in their titles. The confusing of the two drive members of both groups crazy.)

Some Thoughts on the Boston Marathon Bombers

Although it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what disgusts me most about the Boston Marathon bombers I’d venture to say it’s their ingratitude.

Ingratitude towards a nation that took them in from their war-torn country, that gave them housing in a peaceful neighborhood, that gave them a free education and the promise of steady jobs and hope for the future.

The ingratitude they showed when they turned around, squandered that goodwill and killed a child, two women and crippled and maimed hundreds at the city’s premier athletic event. The city took them in and they turned around and spit in our collective faces.

I don’t want to give in to anger and the need for vengeance. But when it comes to what to do with the terrorist’s body, I won’t lose much sleep over the thought of it being burned to ashes and tossed in a sewer. As for his younger brother, put him in a solitary cell with the photos of the people he hurt as his wallpaper. He can stare at their faces for the rest of his miserable life.