It wasn’t the lobster: How we often do work we don’t notice

It wasn’t the lobster
During the summer of 1993, I was dining with my wife, Celia, at a Maine shoreline restaurant. Eighteen years later I can still see our wooden table with the red and white check plastic tablecloth. I had just consumed an excellent lobster along with a pint of beer, and was feeling more relaxed than I had felt for many months.

Leaning back, well fed, I had no inkling what was about to happen. And then, suddenly, out of my mouth came these words:

“I think I’d like to give up working at Marlboro”.

My professional life was hectic. I had a full time salaried position at Marlboro College, teaching half time and running the IT department half time. I was also freelance consulting half time. Oh, and the first two half-time positions were, in reality, more like three-quarter-time commitments. You can do the math.

Until that seafood-fueled moment, I had never consciously thought about making any kind of drastic change in my work life. And yet, as soon as the words were out of my mouth I became aware that I was going to resign from the college and move to full-time consulting work.

And it felt right.

How did I get there?
Well, ultimately, it wasn’t the lobster or the beer that caused this epiphany—they were just the welcome catalysts. I’ve written elsewhere about how you can learn from stories that resonate, but there was no resonance here.

Instead, my relaxing meal provided an opportunity for months of underlying percolating work to emerge. We often do work that we don’t notice. While steeped in the stress and the toll that long workdays were taking on my life, I didn’t notice the analysis and unconscious calculation of risks and tradeoffs that were bubbling under the surface; the hard, drawn-out preparation needed to make such a drastic change in my professional life.

Looking back, I remember a moment in Maine when I moved from employee to self-employed, and I call it an intuitive choice. Perhaps this is what intuition is: a sudden realization of a conclusion from steady unconscious processing of our experiences. Whatever the mechanism, I believe that we have significant unconscious resources that can often help us respond effectively to difficult situations. How we bring them into our consciousness is for you to discover. Perhaps lobster and a beer?

Have you ever experienced this kind of sudden insight in your life? Please share your story!

Image attribution: Flickr user subinev

How you can learn from personal stories

storyteller -maxpower- 4513002300_81ba70ab6f_bAfter I met Glenn Thayer on a warm Colorado evening a couple of months ago, I kept remembering a story that he told me about a celebrity charity event he was emceeing. This puzzled me, because the story had no obvious connection to my life or work.

Recently, I began to understand why his yarn kept popping into my head. I’ll post about Glenn’s story another time, but today I’ll write about how to learn from stories like Glenn’s.

Every day, the people in your life tell you personal stories. They might be a family anecdote, a play-by-play reenactment of last night’s game, a tale of frustration at work, or a child’s outpouring about an incident on the school playground: a unique stream of the tragic, the lighthearted, the passionate, and the mundane. Most of these stories pour through your consciousness, hover there for moments, and are gone. A few resonate in some mysterious way and stay with you for years. All of them influence you. And some of them can teach you valuable lessons—if you pay attention to them.

How can you learn from personal stories? Some, of course, have straightforward learning implications. For example, a relative’s harrowing tale of a ruined vacation due to last minute illness may encourage us to take out travel insurance, or a friend’s clear description of diagnosing a car problem may illuminate what a timing belt is and does. And here are some more, often poignant examples of learning from stories.

But what about stories that teach us important lessons in subtler ways? Sometimes we hear stories that touch us, but we don’t really know why. What can we learn when this happens?

If you are interested in exploring what you can learn from such stories, here are the three steps you must take. They may seem strange suggestions, but I vouch for their effectiveness if you are prepared to do the work.

Notice the important story
Unfortunately, there’s no universal metric that can tell us whether a particular story can teach us something that matters, because every story is contextually unique and each of us has unique lessons to learn. So, if you hear so many stories, how do you know which ones are important?

There isn’t a rational way to notice important stories. Instead, you need to cultivate your emotional intelligence, or, if you prefer the term, your intuition.

Important stories affect you at an emotional level. You live in a world that pays lip service to the rational, but, unless you’re a sociopath, you have emotional responses to your life experiences. The trick to noticing that a story is important to you is to detect that you have responded emotionally in a surprising way. An important story evokes an emotional response, and if that response does not make sense to you, there is gold you can mine from it. Glenn’s Colorado story brought up an emotional response that I didn’t understand. Noticing was all I needed to proceed to the next step.

Capture the story
Perhaps it’s my age, but I find that if I don’t capture the essence of the story so I can recall the details, the tale I’ve heard disappears, like smoke, from my memory within a day, never to reappear. So I carry around 3 x 5 cards to jot down stories and ideas I have. (I’ve also started using Simplenote on my iPad for the same purpose.) When I heard Glenn’s story, I wrote “Do you have a handler?” on a card, which was enough for me to remember his story until I got home and added the phrase plus a few notes to a file I keep of potential topics for blog posts. Now the heart of his story was captured in a place where I would see it weekly whenever I was thinking about a blogging topic.

Tease out the meaning
Teasing out the meaning of an important story is a creative exercise. When I came across Glenn’s story in my blog post pile last week, I decided to spend some time musing about it. I’ve found that the two best ways for me to go into a creative place involve either:

  • Performing mindless physical activity, like stacking wood, going for a walk, washing dishes, or taking a shower.
  • Listening to loud music that I like.

while daydreaming about the topic in question.

Your methods for stimulating your creative juices are probably different. When you’re ready, find a time and place when you won’t be interrupted and apply them. Here are some tips for making the most of your creative exploration of the story:

  • Relax, don’t have any preconceptions about what might happen—watch and listen to whatever drifts through your mind.
  • Don’t censor thoughts and images that come up, just make note of them. I like to have a pen and paper available to record what comes up.
  • Concentrate on the non-rational; you can unleash your analytical powers once your daydreaming phase is over.
  • Don’t expect to unlock all the secrets of the important story in one session. You may want to return to it in a few days to see what’s jelled, what seems important, and what now feels superficial.

I’ve learned some important things about myself and my life by examining stories that have power for me. I hope the techniques I’ve described are useful for you too.

How do you make sense of important personal stories you’ve heard? Do you have examples you’d like to share?

Image attribution: Flickr user maxpower

6 lessons I’ve learned about using volunteers at conferences

using volunteers at conferences
I’ve never run a conference without using volunteers. I’ve spent over thirty years organizing meetings. Here are 6 lessons I’ve learned about using volunteers at conferences.

1) Is this conference marketable?

One of the most important ways I use volunteers is during the earliest conference planning stages to determine whether a proposed event is marketable.

Here’s my simple rule of thumb when deciding whether an idea for a conference might work.

Can I find at least five people enthusiastic enough about the proposed combination of topic/theme, audience, location, and duration to volunteer their time and energy to make the event happen?

If I can’t easily find at least five volunteers enthusiastic about a conference, I’ve (painfully) learned that the event is almost always not viable.

2) Use volunteers for creative work

You’ve got a bunch of willing volunteers—what should you have them do? I try to use my volunteers for creative jobs at conferences. There’s research that indicates that paying people to do work they find interesting can make them less motivated! Here are some examples of conference tasks well suited to volunteers:

  • greeting arriving attendees
  • introducing attendees to each other
  • facilitating sessions
  • organizing and running fun activities

In general, I use volunteers for creative work, and reserve mechanical tasks for paid staff.

3) Check in with your volunteers

Talk with each volunteer individually well before the event. Ask them how they’d like to help, and come to a clear understanding as to what’s expected from them.

4) Plan to have enough volunteers

Volunteers are sometimes less reliable than paid staff. Make sure you have a few people who can cover for last-minute gaps in your volunteer staff during the event.

5) Reward your volunteers

Reward your volunteers throughout the event. Make sure volunteers receive refreshments, meals, and access to conference amenities. If they are attending the conference, offer them reduced or free admission. Reimburse them for any incidental expenses they incur.

6) Never take your volunteers for granted!

Make sure you recognize their contributions, not only publicly, using appropriate perks, awards, and publicity, but also privately. Show them you genuinely appreciate their contributions, and they will become your biggest boosters.

These are the 6 lessons I’ve learned about using volunteers at conferences.

How do you use volunteers at your events? What lessons have you learned?

Image attribution: flickr user sanjoselibrary – creative commons share alike 2.0 generic