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How Will Your Colleagues Remember You?

Today I attended a memorial service at work, for someone I didn't know and probably never would have run into. It's not the first one I've attended for a colleague who lost their lives in the line of duty and it is an awful sight to see.

Know this before I go any further:

--This isn't an excuse to promote my Agency, or any Agency, or the government in general. Although I could. I don't think most people have a clue of the devotion of the average frontline employee serving in dangerous circumstances. Have you ever seen a leader's voice shake, eyes redden as he eulogized a fallen employee? It is horrible. I have seen it happen more than once. In the zeal to find fault with those who shepherd our organizations we quickly overlook what is good.

--It's not about one person. You did not know them and neither did I. It was - moving is not good enough a word. I actually don't have a word that could cover the sight of one colleague describing his everyday interactions with another colleague in such vivid detail. With such obvious liking and respect. And to see that this person suffered drastic physical harm in the same incident that took the life of his peer. That was pretty difficult.

--It's not - not! a preachy post on morality or what defines the "well lived life."

No - it's about something completely different. Capturing a moment in time, when my memory of it is still fresh and, like a camera, I can convey this memory without the Photoshopping of a later recollection.

It's about what really matters to people. What they think about when someone has left, and they reflect on that life, and they take something with them.

You might think: After you pass, what does your reputation matter? You don't have to impress anyone, anymore. You are literally beyond such worries.

But yet you do care. Admit it - you do. Because something in you knows, for whatever reason, that the history book of time applies to you, too. Your actions, the way you affected people, will be etched in stone, and there's not a thing you can do about it once you're gone.

Today, here is what people remembered enough to talk about:

--That you loved someone.

--That you sacrificed something for a greater goal.

--That you believed in trying. Even if you weren't sure you could make a difference.

--That you had joy in life. That you loved a good meal. That you loved being the boss. That you lived!

--That you thought about others in small ways. Went out of your way to make them feel comfortable. Even though you didn't have to.

--That you had passion, so much so that you didn't want to take a break.

--That you saw past superficial differences, like department or nationality or religion. That you didn't think that way.

--That you stood by whatever faith you possessed, even in 100+ degree heat.

--That you had a kind word for everyone.

Most of these things can be encapsulated in a word - in Yiddish we call it being a mensch. A decent human being. The good news is that anyone can accomplish that. 

My great-grandfather, may he rest in peace, had a saying: "Just don't make the world any worse." I always thought that was funny. I never met him, but what a pessimist.

I learned something from my great-grandfather's words. People have pretty low expectations of others, in inverse proportion to how many years they have lived to see people do bad things.

If you want to be remembered well, I would say that the bar is pretty low. So at a minimum try not to hurt people. At the maximum, just be yourself. Your real self. The very best self that you can be.

How to Waste Money Without Even Trying

Do you remember that episode of "I Love Lucy" where Lucy got a job in the factory and got in trouble because she worked faster than everybody else?
This is exactly how money gets wasted in government or any organization. It's obvious from the outside that an activity has no point, but on the inside there are all these justifications.
Over the years I've heard how these justifications are communicated, directly and indirectly. Given the impending "fiscal cliff" I wonder how much money we could save if we started to examine the ways that we perpetuate wasting it.
Here are 5 mechanisms of waste that we can start with:
  • Narrowly operational focus: Project management is defined as delivering any project on time, on budget and within specification as opposed to stopping an ill-conceived project before it launches. The employee is supposed to follow along transactionally, not critically because the bigger decisions are "above my pay grade" and "outside my scope."
  • Personality-based decision-making: Projects are initiated, promoted and launched based on trusting an individual's thought process or deferring to their institutional stature, rather than objectively evaluating whether the project makes fiscal sense or not.
  • Spend it or lose it: This is the concept of using up all your money so that you get the same amount of money next year. It relates to -
  • Empire-building: Which is when you defend your turf against an aggressor by enlarging the scope of your responsibility.
Finally, my favorite:
  • Nonsense arguments to justify a predetermined outcome: My mother is a very simple person and that's why I run things past her often. If you can't explain the logic behind an idea to my mother in three seconds, then she'll tell you to your face - it's b.s.
This is not at all about blaming government. Rather it's about looking at common dysfunctional mechanisms in all large organizations to see how we might make things better here. Because what's so insidious about these kinds of issues is how taken for granted they are.
In other words, it's not that anyone is trying to waste money, necessarily. Rather, the power politics of the organization, its culture and structure dictate that people behave this way or else risk being marginalized or worse.

The Absolute Funniest Bad Parody of "Gangnam Style" You Can Imagine

Communication at its finest!

10 Success Traits You Can Adopt In 10 Minutes

Image via Wikipedia

1. Return calls immediately.

2. Treat everyone with the same amount of respect.

3. Dress more formally than you think you need to.

4. Work harder than everybody else.

5. Follow through on the details.

6. Laugh at yourself - lose the ego.

7. Praise someone else - boost them up.

8. Make life easier for your customers, and your #1 customer is your boss.

9. Focus on solving the problem, and that's it.

10. Communicate to people in their preferred manner.

Good Girl, Bad Girl and the Quest for Certainty

Every day we see stories about the abuse of women and children in the media. One of these concerns a young girl raised in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish sect called Satmar, in Williamsburg.

This sect is nothing more than a cult. It's a cult that I am familiar with because of my family. They are good people led by what amounts to nothing more than fundamentalist thugs.

The alleged assaults started at the time the young woman was just 12. She had been sent to unlicensed "therapist" Nechemya Weberman, a member of the "modesty committee," for "counseling" for the infraction of asking questions in school.

The story is lurid and I won't repeat the details of the allegations here. But suffice it to say that the victim's testimony reduced the courtroom to tears. One wonders how she survived at all, let alone kept it to herself. (The blog FailedMessiah covers the case extensively.)

The worst part of the whole thing, to my mind, is that the cult's "Grand Rabbi" calls the victim a "whore," completely flipping the Bible on its head (which takes the side of the victim). At a dinner this week he stated:
"A Jewish daughter has descended so low, terrible! ... (Quoting the Bible:) 'Is our sister to be like a whore?'" - Source (scroll down to the comments for translation)
Victims are innocent, attackers are guilty but in the narrative of the sick community, being victimized makes a good girl "bad."

Why should anyone care about this story? Because unfortunately, even non-victims of sexual assault are cast into categories and mistreated accordingly.

Over the past year or so I've spoken to a few women, informally, about their experiences with dating. And to the letter they all seem to be going through the same thing. Which is that they date, have relationships over a long period of time (years), even approaching common-law marriage. But no commitment from their partner is forthcoming.

I talked to my aunt about this - the one who lives in an ultra-Orthodox community that is geographically close to this cult - and she told me that the problem is this: Girls should be religious (in our case, ultra-Orthodox Jewish). Because then they would be treated with respect - they would be seen as "good."

Isn't it ironic? Here we have the case of an allegedly bad man heading up a "modesty squad" intended to keep "good girls" good. And he allegedly victimizes one of these good girls, which automatically turns her "bad." But at the same time, girls who are not part of these ultra-Orthodox communities are automatically "bad," which means they can't get any "worse."

Twisted words - "good girl," "bad girl" - reflecting the logic of twisted thinking.

Making Your Case? Everything Counts

At a high school debate competition, kids barely old enough to drive, drink or vote argue in teams about the finer points of morality and public policy. One of them is my daughter.

It's interesting to see the different ways people justify an argument and how well those are received. It's noteworthy that each type of argument will likely appeal to a different personal mindset or culture. 

  • The logical types avoided judging right and wrong and merely related a possible course of action to its likely outcome. Clearly to the judges - I think they were academics - these kids were the stars. But what scared me as a regular person was the elegance of the argument combined with the completely morally absent nature of its potential conclusions - e.g., "Who am I to say who's a terrorist?" (Think about the Nazis, the Taliban, etc. and their "logic".)
  • The G-d talkers had a very straightforward view of right and wrong. They compared a possible course of action to what G-d would say about it in their estimation and in simple terms. For example, "Greed is not what G-d wants." I found myself uplifted by their faith but not convinced unless my personal conscience said the same thing as theirs. 
  • The practical ones took a straightforward, common-sense approach to issues by presenting what most people would agree with morally ("racism is horrible") and then comparing the cost of action with the likelihood of its having an impact: ("It's really hard to change people's beliefs and ideally we would all want racial bias to go away, we have to do as much as possible to do that, but there's only so much we can do and we have to do that to the best of our ability.") I was not sure what that would translate into in practice, but I found myself simply agreeing - especially since that last one was my daughter (so yes, doesn't personal bias always play a role no matter how hard we try to be objective?)

Another was to take away some communication lessons about argument style.
  • Fluidity of mind matters. It is so important to be skilled in mode of argument - to be able to go from logic, to spirituality, to practicality when it is appropriate. To never let your mind be fixed in one mode.
  • Good talkers are impressive. Even if what they say makes no sense.
  • People also notice when you do your research rather than just pulling straws out of the air. When one kid talked about the origins of the Taliban, and another one talked about the ecosystem in Alaska, it wasn't only the facts they shared but also the fact that they had bothered to research that facts that served as a wow factor.
  • Teamwork is impressive. To see the kids passing notes back and forth and helping each other build on the argument makes you have confidence in the team. Conversely to see one kid interrupt another kid to make a point - even if trying to be helpful - looks rough and uncoordinated. (Also noticeable was how freely the groups agreed with each other and how it was routine for them to genuinely congratulate the other side when the round was completed.)
  • The entertainment factor. Your argument may not be fully "there," but if you are comfortable onstage and make your remarks into a little bit of a show, the audience thinks you know what you are talking about and will give you more credit than they otherwise would. 
  • Symbolism counts. In the example of practical reasoning above, it was my daughter - a white Jewish girl - talking about racism before a competitor team that was entirely African-American. And all of their parents were in the room. Would she be seen as having a right to speak? But I was stunned - as she spoke - three of the competitor team's parents were nodding in agreement. Which brings me to the next point.
  • Sincerity. When you obviously want to do the right thing people know it no matter what differences may seem to separate you.
So there they were this weekend, our kids - different religions, different genders, different cultures, different skin colors and different economic classes. And they were all together. 

To be honest I felt a sense of relief watching them. We "old people" don't have to solve all the world's problems for kids. We just have to know when it's time to get out of the way.