The original plan after I earned my Master's degree was that I would do something for myself that I had been meaning to do for a long time. A big personal gift. Something like a vintage VW Beetle. Maybe a light blue 1967 model. Anyway, that thought occurred a few years ago, before I was put into a job search mode, before my disposable income changed, before I had to pay more out of pocket for the degree. I'm not complaining mind you...I bought the ticket and took the ride.
Anyway and undeterred, I still thought it was appropriate to get myself a small gift for graduation. If not a vintage VW Bug, what then? The answer? A new bike.
I've had a bike for most of my life. As a kid, I would ride for miles on end, which in Scranton (with all of its hills) is something of a feat. I've always found riding a bike to be something of a perfect activity for an introvert: Unless I am riding with my wife (or, as was the case last summer, my mother-in-law) it tends to be an almost contemplative experience.
(May 2018, the new wheels)
I'll note that I've had the same Trek bike for something like 20 years. It has, in fact, served me very well.
However, the bike was a bit too small for me and its complete and utter lack of any form of shock absorption made for some rough rides on my older frame. The new bike went out for an inaugural ride this evening on the side streets of West Pittston, PA (a very bike-friendly town). Many more rides will come.
For the record, the new bike was purchased at Sickler's Bike Shop in Kingston, PA. It's nice to be able to support a local business. If you live in NEPA and are looking for a bike check them out.
In the back of my head, well, I knew this day was coming. For the record, I even tried to prepare for it, but we all know how that old saying about "... best-laid plans..." goes. "This day" and "it" refers to how I feel after having finished school related stuff(1). The best way I can describe it is via a rubber band:
You stretch it and stretch it and stretch it. Miraculously, it doesn't break. But you do eventually let go of it, and what's left, after it snaps back, is a mere shadow of the formerly stretched self, formless and misshapen.
That's where I'm at right here and now.
As a side note, I almost constantly...without exaggeration...have a song playing in my head. As I was thinking about this topic during the quiet hours of this morning, the following song lyric came to mind:
"And if anything, then there's your sign of the times I was alive and waited, waited I was alive and waited for this, Right here, right now"(2)
Sign of the times indeed.
Call it a funk. Call it a rut. This has happened to me before. And will likely happen again.
There isn't much of a solution here. No "chemical willy"(3) would be of help; besides, I'm simply adamant about the fact that, when all is said and done, I never want anything (including pharmacology) to come between me and my ability to truly experience life...the good, the bad, and the over-stretched rubber-band. That could be either a truly enlightened concept on my part or incredibly stupid. Both are likely to be correct.
Now I could find some other big thing to do. And maybe that will happen. But at the moment, "right here and now" I just don't have the mental juice for that sort of thing. In as much as I feel as if I should be doing something big, part of me also knows that I need to rest, both mentally and physically. The latter, by the way, has always been something of a challenge; as evidence, I can point to my having woken up at 5am this morning. On a Saturday.
So what's left? Maybe make a list of things I want to get done over the next few months. Working outside is always sort of enjoyable for me. As someone who has worked in the business world for three decades, complete with its tendency towards tremendous effort being put into things where there is no tangible outcome, something like cutting the grass has a significant benefit: Before the work, the grass is high, after the work the grass is low.
If only it were that easy in our professional lives.
...if I were to ever write a book that is, would be about the importance of kindness, particularly in our professional lives. It's my somewhat learned opinion that there's a deficit of kindness in this country, especially in the business world. We simply need more kindness.
In many ways, the classic American business ethos is the antithesis of kindness, rife with blind ambition, where one climbs the ladder of success, never minding the heads that might be stepped on along the way. It's a land where people do what they are told, where "I don't pay you to think". It's a work ethic where "driving for success" is admired, regardless of the dark route that drive had to take. This is the ugly American at his or her worst.
The problem with that whole line of thought is that it casually forgets that almost all effort at work is actually discretionary in nature. We all choose how we show up to work each and every morning (figuratively or literally). Even when we are "doing as we are told", our disdain for systems and managers (as opposed to leaders) that disregard who we are as human beings inevitably leads, at best, passive resistance. At worst? Things like active sabotage come to mind. I don't care who you are, where you come from, or how much money you have: None of us work best under threat or coercion. Sure, ambition may carry us along for some period of time, but just like gravity, we inevitably get pulled down to reality. Put another way, ambition is a bit like really good chocolate cake in that our perception of having it is always better than the actual taste. And when we finally do get that cake? Well, how many pieces does it take before we're so sick of cake that we can't eat another bite?
For the record, I'm not dismissing ambition. Like any tool, it can be used or abused. Kind of like using a $200+ power drill...
...to hammer in nails.
The cure, if you want to call it that, for what ails our society is kindness. Just be kind.
Be kind when it's easy.
Be especially kind when it's hard.
Be kind to those who are kind to you.
Be especially kind to those who are not kind to you. They likely don't know any better or they might be struggling in ways that none of us can understand.
Be as kind to the person who empties your trash as you are to the executive you want to impress.
Be kind in ways only you need to know about.
Be kind because ultimately you have to live with yourself...and do you really want to live with someone isn't kind?
Kindness doesn't mean that we fail to make difficult business decisions. Someone can be, for example, laid off from their job in a manner that is kind. Someone can be put on a performance improvement plan that is inherently kind (because we actually want them to get better). We can provide all manner of constructive feedback in a spirit that speaks of kindness. We can seek promotions/professional growth in a way that demonstrates the value we see in others...not as steps to walk on along our way...but as allies who have taught us and added to our capabilities.
By the way, kindness in a business context has a kind of secret weapon quality to it: It's free. Being kind costs absolutely nothing. No special kindness training to schedule and attend. No consultants needed. No programs to implement. No infographics or logos required. No polices to socialize and then post on the intranet. Just commit to being kind.
Lastly, like all truly important things in our lives (be they be personal or professional), kindness is a journey. I am not always as kind as I should be, particularly to those who I seem to think not kind to me or to others. I particularly struggle with individuals that I believe have a generous ego. I can, should and will do better, not because I'm looking for some otherworldly reward, but because ultimately kindness is the reward.
I woke up this morning at 5:18am(1) with the following thought in my head:
Motherhood is the most difficult, most important job in the world for which there are no educational requirements, no licensing, no registration.
I'll also note that, as evidenced by this blog(2), few people have more influence on us...on our lives...than our own Mother. Be that good, bad or indifferent. Our Mothers physically carry us before we are born, and we then mentally carry our Mothers with us for the rest of our lives. Motherhood is, at least by my estimation, the highest calling.
(Around 1970; the blogger is on the far left, with my Mother and two of my brothers)
My hope is that every Mother out there feels appreciated today in some special kind of way.
(1) I've been unfortunately getting up far too early on the weekends. Not sure why. It's along the lines of my eyes peer open and my brain immediately goes full throttle. (2) I've likely written about my own Mother hundreds of times on this blog.
There were only a few things in life that ever actually impressed my late mother. Stripping out people for a moment (Martha Stewart, for example, could do no wrong...even with the felony conviction), she was impressed by folks who were well educated. While my Mom never really said so to either of us, I know she was proud of her two sons who earned college degrees.
(My Mom & the Blogger, first graduation in May 1986)
Before she passed away, I had told my Mom that I had been toying around with the idea of going back to school. Her response was usually something along the gruff lines of "well, what's stopping you?". In my life up to about eight or so years ago, well, a lot of things were stopping me. These were things like time, energy, money, etc. All valid reasons. About a year after her passing I made the leap. No more excuses. It was time to either go back to school or shelve the idea entirely. I made the former decision, and in September of 2014, I attended my first class in the Villanova University M.S.-HRD degree program*. For the official record, my anxiety level for that first class was a 12 (on a scale of 1 to 10).
Fast forward through 30 graduate credits, countless tests, a large novel's worth of papers, stacks of research and I completed my actual coursework in May 2017. Graduation had to wait though until I completed the final program requirement, namely passing an industry examination. Something I managed to put off for a year.
The above procrastination ended today with my passing of just such an exam. More on that later, once I get my official results. I'll note that I put in between 30 and 40 hours, give or take, in actual exam preparation. I'll also note that the test was one of the most difficult I've ever had to take, and that list includes three securities examinations and one for a Pennsylvania insurance license. Put another way, if you think "HR stuff" is easy, well, I'll lend you my study materials.
How do I feel about all of this? At this stage, I'd say numb. The whole going back to school thing was an enormous undertaking for me, both in terms of cost (even with tuition assistance from my prior employer) and sheer effort. While I enjoy writing (obviously...), I didn't enjoy the pressures of research work, final exams, etc. The on-going theme in my head was one of "I'm too damn old for this". Quite frankly, I'm just glad this is over. And it is all over, as my academic career has just concluded. It's time for me to move on.
Moving on is a big part of what's going to happen next. In life, we all meet points in time when we know things are going to change. For me, this is one of those times. A kind of nexus if you will where things converge and then move off into new a direction. That new direction for me is going to involve more rest, more outdoors, more, well, "fun".
I couldn't have done this, by the way, without a cast of supporting folks who either put up with me, coached me, or, unknowing to them, motivated me in some way or another. Chief among the members of my posse is my wife, Ms. Rivers, who has spent more time that she should have cleaning up after dinner so that I could get to school work. She also deserves a medal for all of the incredibly dry papers she has had to read and edit for me over the past few years. I also need to thank my many co-workers, across two wonderful organizations, who have encouraged me along the way. They know who they are, but in case they forget, I'll be reaching out.
Finally, while she isn't here to see this, I know my Mom would be proud of me on this day. As I was thinking about the exam over the past few days, and the fact that it was the last thing I needed to graduate, I knew that she was there with me in spirit.
I did it Mom!
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(*) You can learn more about Villanova's graduate HRD program HERE.