Friday, April 24, 2009


There is a difference between a job and a hobby. When you decide to do something for fun, to help you relax or to take your mind off your problems, you don’t have to do it well and you don’t have to do it forever.

These are revolutionary ideas to most people.

My friends love to talk about the number of things I’ve quit. I used to take ballroom dance lessons, but I quit. I did some painting, but I gave that up, too.
I strung beads on wire and made my own jewelry for a while. I took a camera out into the woods and photographed nature. Ten years ago, I took up sewing. I made a dress and two skirts, but I haven’t sewed anything since.

These are what I call hobbies. Hobbies aren’t things I ever want to do professionally. I don’t need to be good at them.

I can spend every spare hour for weeks on a hobby, and then abandon it and never go back.

I dabble.

So often, other people seem to feel the need to apologize for dabbling. If you ask someone whether they play golf, for instance, most people will say either yes or no. Yes, if they work hard at the game, play regularly, take lessons and generally care about it. No, if they don’t do all these things.

People don’t understand the freedom of dabbling.

I can sit down at a piano and pick out a simple tune, but I can’t really play. The pleasure I get from my simple tune is just as great as it would be if I could play Beethoven’s Fifth, which I never will because I don't care that much. It takes dedication and passion to accomplish that. You can't dabble your way to Carnegie Hall.

There's nothing wrong with dabbling when it comes to golf or photography, but if you are a consultant, you can't dabble at networking. You can't dabble at maintaining your skills. You can't dabble at managing you career. Or rather, you can, of course, but you are giving up success and security.

There's freedom in dabbling with your hobbies. With your job, the freedom comes when you stop dabbling.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Bad Waiters Think Women Are Lousy Tippers

I was sitting in the waiting room at the eye doctor last week, trying to read a book. It was recommended somewhat forcefully by a lot of people, so I feel I should read it, but it hasn’t caught my attention yet, so I was easily distracted.

Across the room from me, a young man was lounging in his seat talking into his cell phone in an uncomfortably loud voice. Now, I talk loud on the phone. I know this because people keep mentioning it, but this guy was really yelling.

Whenever I hear someone working hard to talk on the phone, having to raise their voice or constantly saying, “Can you hear me?” or “Are you still there?”, I’m often surprised at the inanity of the conversation they are struggling to have. This young lizard was no exception.

He said, “Yo, dude, are we goin’ out tonight or what...Nah, I worked last night…it sucked. I had the back section and I thought it was gonna be a good night and then this group of women took the big table…hardly any tip at all. It’s like they don’t know anything.”

At that point, he caught my eye and realized I was listening to him. I think he also realized I was laughing at him, because he turned away and lowered his voice. From the back, the tips of his ears were still visible and they were bright red.
I didn’t tell him what I know, but I wish I had. I know that he is a rotten waiter.

When I go to a restaurant with other women, we frequently discuss the tip and most women believe that the tip is a flexible amount based on the quality of the service. It’s not the fixed 15% or 20% that many men practice. Women tend to see the tip as an opportunity to reward good behavior, in much the same way we praise the puppy who piddles on the newspaper.

The women I know, so this is a broad generalization, tip between 5% and 45% and it depends entirely on the quality of the service and how much they enjoyed the experience.

If the waiter doesn’t understand that eye contact is a request for attention, or if glasses sit empty while we wait to finish our spicy tuna role, the tip will shrink. If the waiter is unobtrusive, but the glasses are always filled and the food arrives how and when expected and the check is accurate, the tip will be lavish.

This is not a secret. In fact, it’s the reason the tip isn’t a fixed amount – to give you the opportunity to earn an extraordinary tip by executing extraordinarily well. Good waiters know this.

Monday, March 16, 2009

10 Tips for Aspiring Writers

  1. Keep writing. Write all the time.

  2. When you’re not writing, read the sorts of books or stories that you want to write. Every genre has a different tone and pace. Every writer organizes chapters and writes dialog a little differently. As you’re reading, pay attention to these details and it’ll be easy to find your style.

  3. Despite what they taught you in school, it is okay to start a sentence with “and” or “but” when writing fiction, and it’s okay to end a sentence with a preposition. Write the way you talk, not the way they taught you to write in school.

  4. Write down great ideas for stories or characters or essays, or even just great combinations of words, whenever you think of them. I carry a small notebook in my purse that is filled with random thoughts, alongside grocery lists and the model number of my printer because I can never remember it when I’m at Office Depot and need ink. In my extra bedroom, I have a huge cedar chest that is full of these notebooks. (I’ve been doing this for a long time.) When I get stuck and need some inspiration, I pull out a notebook at random and begin to read. There is always something cool there that will help me. For example, yesterday I was writing a 1000-word essay for my writing group and I needed a few words of advice for an old person to give the bride at a wedding reception. I was completely blank. Could not think of any slightly negative, completely random words to start this conversation. I dove into the trunk, pulled out an old notebook, and the fourth or fifth page said, “Bad luck follows bad choices,” which was absolutely perfect for the conversation I had in mind, since my goal was for the bride to then burst into tears and run out of the room.

  5. Get into a writing group. My group is actually just a few friends who all aspire to write fiction but make our livings with other things. Every week, one of us sends out a “prompt” which is just three random words or concepts. The exercise is to write 1000 words that uses all of those key words. Then we compare essays, and we are always astonished at how we used the different ideas. You can do this by yourself, but it’s more fun with writerly friends. (Our prompt last week was "camera, tears, yellow", so naturally I wrote about a wedding.) There are some great discussion groups for writers on Facebook, if you need a place to start.

  6. If you have something written that you want to have published, send it to a publisher. Start collecting rejection notices now so you can learn from them and become a better writer. And, you just might get published.

  7. Don’t close yourself off from writing opportunities that are not your “dream job”. I have always wanted to write fiction, and I’ve written a lot of it, but I’ve never been paid for a single word. (Might partially be because I’m afraid to risk rejection, so no one has ever read my stories.) I started out in my career as a technical writer designing training manuals for software. Then, I switched to consulting documentation and proposals. Now, I have one book on Amazon and two more coming out in the next two months – all of which are business how-to books. I have been paid for my writing, and for talking about writing, for nearly 20 years, but when I started, I thought the technical writing gig was temporary. I was sure that I’d be a famous novelist before I turned thirty.

  8. When my little publishing company gets our Writers Workshop going in Austin, sign up. We’ll teach you everything we know about writing and getting published, and then we’ll read your work and try to help you get it into print. (I’ll tweet and blog about it when it’s on the calendar.)

  9. Ask questions. Don’t hesitate to talk to every writer you meet about your goals and dreams. Writers are extremely generous with their time and advice.

  10. Set goals for yourself. If you don’t know exactly where you want to end up, it’ll take a lot longer to get there.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

A Treadmill Desk? Huh?

One of the most common complaints I hear from other writers, freelance programmers and work-from-home consultants is that it's hard to draw the line between work time and personal time. Many of us spend more than a typical workday at the computer when we're writing or coding, but we also spend a lot of our personal time at the computer, too. How else could I keep up with all my friends on Facebook?

Over the last couple of years, there has been a lot of talk about treadmill desks. Research says we've got to get up and move to maintain good health, and these contraptions appeal to us, but the cost seems prohibitive.

I already have a treadmill, though I haven't used it as much as I hoped when I bought it. (Shocking, I know.) I thought maybe I could make my own treadmill desk, so I did a little googling and found some ideas. If I were an engineer or if I cared how it looked, I might have invented an elaborate solution like these guys.

Instead, I decided to try this guy's idea for myself.

I went to Lowe's and bought a 6'x18"x1/2" precut, raw pine shelf and a package of styrofoam sheets intended for insulation. Total cost was less than $25.

I simply laid the styrofoam across the handlebars and then placed the shelf on top of the styrofoam. Nothing is attached to anything else, so it can all be disassembled instantly if I decide to take up running (ha ha ha ha ha ha) or sell the treadmill. After a few adjustments and the addition of one more layer of laminated shelves (that were stored in my garage) to protect me from splinters and raise the work surface, my treadmill desk was ready for work.

I did this a week ago and have been delighted with the result. I can read, write, and talk on the phone easily at 1.2 mph. If I'm shopping on Amazon or loitering on Facebook, I can push it up to 2.0 mph without noticeable effect.

I've walked more than 40 miles in this first week, all while writing more than 100 pages of the new book, 4 blogs, too many tweets and Facebook comments to count, and playing with my new iPhone. (What? I saved nearly $5,000 not buying the Steelcase Walkstation. Yet. The iPhone was my reward.)

I've always known that my brain works better when I'm moving. In the past, I'd write a few pages, get stuck, go for a walk, get an idea, rush back to the computer, and write a few more pages. This week, I didn't get stuck. I got tired after a few miles each day and moved back to the sofa, but overall, I'm thrilled. I think this is going to be a permanent addition to my working routine. Maybe it's time to move the treadmill out of the "extra room" and into the office...

Monday, March 9, 2009

New Old Encyclopedias

Everyone has a quirky thing they do that other people might not understand. I collect old encyclopedias, but of course I use words like “vintage” instead of just calling them old.

Last week, Joel Davis of Books Beyond Borders invited me to look at some old encyclopedias that he was planning to send to the recycle bin. He sells used books and supports Project Schoolhouse. Books Beyond Borders’ slogan is “turning old books into new schools”, which is just plain awesome and I plan to buy most of my books there from now on. I got to tour their amazing warehouse filled with books of all kinds. For me, this is what heaven will look like, except there will also be a big squishy chair and a good reading lamp.

In the corner, Joel pointed out a stack of boxes. Inside, I found a treasure trove of old and not-so-old encyclopedias. The internet has made encyclopedias obsolete for a lot of people, unless you want to know what the world was like sometime in the past 200 years. Encyclopedias have been around a long time, and dipping into a volume published in 1880 or 1936 is fascinating to a book lover or history buff.

If you come to my house and comment on the array of old leather books in the corner bookcase, I’ll start by showing you Vol.23 REF to SAI of the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica opened to “Russia”, where you’ll read about how the Russian Parliament was elected in the pre-revolution days. Votes were allocated based on how much you paid in taxes, and taxes were charged based on how much land you owned. So only the wealthy voted in 1911. The encyclopedia doesn’t provide any editorial comment on the facts it reports, but the reader may get the impression that this isn’t a great way to run a country. We now know that in 1917, the under-represented peasants and workers revolted and the term “landowner” no longer had any meaning in Russia. When you know how the story turns out, the information in an old encyclopedia entry can be extremely enlightening.

Next, I’ll open up the 1936 entry for Germany, where you’ll read about the new dictator, Adolph Hitler, and the Nazi’s plan to revive Germany’s economy by reserving Germany for true Germans, which includes immigration reform, exportation of non-Aryan residents and extermination of Jews. If that’s not chilling enough, and in the Britannica’s cool objectivity, it IS chilling, I’ll show you the 1941 edition, where the essay on the geography of Germany begins with the words, “Depending on the outcome of the war…”

By the time I’m finished with my guided tour of history as seen through the encyclopedia, nearly every visitor has something they want to look up. It’s fun to watch engineers read about “electricity” in 1911 or techno-geeks try to look up “electronics” in the 1955 edition.

None of my sets are complete or valuable to real collectors. The leather bindings are cracked and many of the fold-out colored maps are torn. I love them anyway.

The downside is that no one ever offers to help me move.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Social vs Business Networking

Standing outside church on Christmas Eve, Cody Kanz and I talked about how much fun we were having reading each other's status updates on Facebook. He asked me if I thought Facebook was going to change the way we interact with our friends. Considering he is 20 years younger and ten times cooler than I am, I thought it was extraordinarily diplomatic of him to wonder what I thought about anything. At the time, I didn't have much of an answer for him. I think I said something like, "Uh, well, that's an interesting question."

It is an interesting question and one that I've revisited many times in the weeks since Christmas. I still don't have an answer, but I've expanded the question to include business contacts. Now it's an even more interesting question.

Will Facebook join LinkedIn and Twitter and become an indispensable business networking tool? Has it already happened? I think so.

In every Interviewing Skills workshop and Job Search Seminar we teach, Casey and I talk about the importance of making sure your online reputation matches your business reputation when you are looking for a job. Even very low-tech recruiters now Google their candidates before submitting them for open positions. They're going to have to work a lot harder to take you seriously as an applicant after they've seen pictures of you drinking shots at a party and passed out on a boat in the middle of the lake.

When people ask me how to start building a business network, I always say "Talk to your friends." Now, this includes your online friends, and their friends, and their friends. The lines between social networking and business networking are blurring to the point that they may no longer exist.

If unemployment continues to rise and layoffs outpace hiring at major corporations, finding a job will require creativity and a willingness to leverage the contacts you have. This spring, an enormous number of graduating seniors will be spending Spring Break at home with their parents. They'll be talking to Mom and Dad and Aunt Ruth about who they know who might be hiring in June. They'll be begging their parents to host barbecues and cocktail parties where they will be networking like crazy.

Here's the thing they are going to learn: Mom and Dad and Aunt Ruth are all on Facebook already. So are their friends. They know what you've been up to.

So while I still don't have an answer for Cody about whether or not Facebook will change how we interact with our friends, I think maybe I should tell him that the economy and fear of unemployment will definitely change how we interact with Facebook.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Interviewing vs Dating

Author Jess McCann has a new book out called "You Lost Him at Hello" in which she coaches women who are looking for love to apply the same strategies that work in a sales environment to meeting men. (I'm sure there's more to it than that, but I don't have time to read the book. I only read the review, and yet, I feel free to talk about it. Sue me.)

McCann's point, as far as I can tell, is that there are two key elements when you are trying to meet new people. First, you have to be prepared. Have a plan for what you'll talk about and be prepared to tell your story so that someone will find you interesting and memorable. Second, you have to have the right attitude. Make eye contact, smile and demonstrate positive energy.

These are the same critical success factors that we've identified for people involved in a job hunt or interview situation. In a competitive job market, every conversation you have may result in an opportunity found...or an opportunity lost. The scary part is that you may never know that you missed an opportunity because you were talking about the crab dip instead of about yourself.

We even put together a tool to help you plan your Personal Pitch so that you are prepared to describe yourself in a few short sentences, rather than going on and on and never really making the point you want to make.

Preparation not only means planning what you will say. It also means planning some questions to ask. We tell our workshop participants that they should only talk about 50% of the time in a job interview. If you are talking all the time, you aren't asking enough questions.

Remember when you were in high school and your mom told you to ask questions and listen if you want to be considered a great conversationalist? It's still true in a dating situation and even more true when you are looking for a job, which leads me right back to Jess McCann's second point - attitude.

Positive Listening means you are smiling, responding to what is said, and clearly demonstrating your interest in the conversation. In this way, you show your positive attitude and make yourself more appealing, whether you are looking for a date or a job.

I love it when multiple people who have never heard of each other arrive at the same conclusion at the same time. It gives me hope that there is Truth in the result.