On being ... an anomaly?

By Ingrid Sapona

Sometimes I wonder whether tidbits – little things you hear or read – “stick” with others the way they often do with me. I’m not talking about advice people have given me, I’m talking about ideas that have come up in discussions I’ve been involved in that have percolated within me and every now and then bubble up in my thoughts.

One idea that came to mind recently goes back to a discussion I had while at law school more than 20 years ago. The discussion was with a psychologist. I don’t remember the context, but I know I asked her whether, or how, someone might decide they need her help. That question led to a conversation about how a person might determine whether their feelings, emotions, and reactions are “normal”.

Rather than offer her opinion about whether something was normal, the psychologist said she suggests patients consider whether their behaviour is appropriate. She then mentioned that one method for doing this is to monitor other peoples’ reactions to what you’ve said or done. She noted that most of us do this subconsciously, but sometimes it’s useful to do it consciously. One thing she stressed, however, was that you must be sure to, as she put it, collect a number of “data points”. In other words, don’t let just one person’s reaction serve as validation (or, conversely, as cause for alarm).

I remember that her suggestion had immediate appeal to me (maybe because “data points” made it seem scientific and therefore at least a bit less self-obsessed). Over the years there have been many occasions when I’ve found myself doing a “reality check” (my term for it), consciously reflecting on others’ reactions to something in particular that I’ve said or done.

Indeed, I conduct reality checks in my business all the time. I’m constantly trying to gage how clients like my work and what value they attach to it (this relates to more than just what they’re paying me). After all, if the only signal you pay attention to is whether they pay your invoice, you may be scratching your head later, trying to figure out why you haven’t gotten any repeat business from them, or any referrals.

But, it’s not my on-going, intentional collection of data points related to my business that’s brought to mind the conversation I had with the psychologist. Instead, it was my reaction (or perhaps over-reaction) to a recent, rather off-hand, comment related to my business. I guess you could say it was my concern with whether my reaction was “normal” that brought to mind that long-ago conversation.

Here’s what happened: earlier this month I sent clients, friends, and acquaintances an announcement regarding my recent change of address. In the e-mail I jokingly noted that I had moved and I had taken my business with me. (The comment was clearly made in jest, given that my clients know I work out of my home.) For good measure, I included a link to my web site.

A day or so later, a friend e-mailed me about the announcement. (Though we don’t see each other often, we’ve managed to stay in touch once or twice a year since high school.) Anyway, she commented about one of the latest postings on my business blog (showing she checked out my web site) and then added, “I … never knew you had a writing business so I am glad you passed on the info.”

Well, her comment about not knowing I had a business threw me for a loop. (No, I don’t think she was teasing me – she’s a physician and tends to be rather serious.) Surely she knows I no longer practice law, I thought to myself. (It’s been more than 10 years since I practiced – I’m sure I mentioned that to her at some point!) So what could she have thought I do for a living? She knew my undergrad degree was in journalism, so my making a living writing should have at least crossed her mind. (My sister didn’t find it too funny when I commented that maybe my girlfriend thought I turned tricks to pay the bills.) Of course, my real concern didn’t relate to the fact that my friend didn’t know what I do for a living – it had to do with whether her comment is somehow indicative of the fact that I’m a failure at explaining my line of work.

When I eventually calmed down and tried to look at it more rationally, that psychologist’s point about collecting a number of data points popped into my head. On further thought – and analysis of other data points – I came to the conclusion that my friend’s comment is probably more a reflection of her lack of attention than it is of my inability to articulate what my business is all about. (That said, it’s also made me realized that perhaps I should “talk up” my business a bit more to friends, lest they start speculating about what I do to earn my hourly rate!)

Now, back to my original question: I guess I’ll never know for sure whether others are impacted by things they hear or read (after all, I can’t collect data points about it), or if it only happens to me. But I guess if I didn’t believe that others experience this every now and then, I’d never understand why anyone would bother reading On being …

© 2008 Ingrid Sapona


On being ... that time of year?

By Ingrid Sapona

Last night, when I started thinking about what to write about, the idea I kept coming back to was habits. But, I knew that years ago I wrote a column on the topic (On being … a creature of habit), so I was reluctant to write about it again. Out of curiosity, I pulled out the previous column to see what I said about it before.

That column reflected on what happens when a habit I have -- but didn’t really even realize was a habit -- is disrupted. The thought I tried to leave the reader with then was that little disruptions in habit are a good thing because they help us become more aware of how we behave. My reflections the past few days about habits have been quite different. Indeed, the reason I think habits are on my mind today is because I’ve been working on adopting a few in relation to my business.

My consulting business is quite slow right now. So, I’ve been trying to use the time I have on my hands to explore some new business strategies and methods. To this end, I decided to look into using some sort of business contact management software. Up to now, it’s the type of thing I had rejected as simply inapplicable to my type of business.

I don’t know why, exactly, I decided to look into such software now, other than the idea that maybe trying something different would help. Well, that, and the realization that, though I’ve always thought of my business as unique, or at least very different from many other kinds of businesses (feel free to imitate Dana Carvey’s Church Lady and let out a mocking little, “aw, isn’t that special”), perhaps it’s time I get over it and try a few more tools and techniques that work for other successful businesspeople.

After a bit of digging and asking around, I realized my Microsoft Office for Small Business package includes contact management software. So, last weekend I installed it and started playing around with it. Interestingly, the challenge of thinking about how to use it in my business forced me to focus on my business in ways I hadn’t in quite some time. Suddenly, a number of new ideas about people, businesses, and organizations I might contact popped into my head.

Soon I realized that the feature that’s likely to prove most valuable for me is the one for creating “tasks”. In my case, most of the tasks involve calling or e-mailing someone -- a current client, a potential client, or someone that I should network with. Though I’ve always got a “To Do” list scribbled down that includes names of folks to contact, I find following-up with people (much less cold calls) very challenging. I eventually get to everyone on my list -- but because I find it so nerve-wracking, every unanswered call (much less the slightest rebuff) feels like an out-and-out rejection of me and my work. As a result, more often than not I struggle through one or two attempts at reaching, or meeting with, someone, then I give up on that person for quite some time.

With this program, when you input a task you’re prompted to assign a due date, which later causes the program to issue a reminder at the appropriate time. My inclination was to try to bypass these prompts (after all, being constantly reminded of things I should do is kind of like having a boss, which anyone who works for themselves is clearly keen to avoid). But, in the spirit of trying something new, I assigned various (appropriate) due dates to all the tasks I inputted.

The following Monday, I was working away when the first reminder of a task popped up. It caught me by surprise, but I dutifully read it. Sure enough, it was about calling someone whom I’ve never met but whose name was given to me by a client. I had included the phone number in the task, so I figured, what the hell, and I immediately made the call. I got their voice mail and left a message. Hey -- that wasn’t too bad. Later that day a few other reminders popped up and I dealt with each. (In some cases I postponed them for a few hours, but by the end of the day, I had completed them all.) I did the same the next day. As well, each day, as new ideas came to me, I added more tasks for later follow-up.

By the third day I noticed that much (not all, but lots) of the anxiety I normally feel when contacting people was gone. Somehow, the electronic reminders have helped me come to grips with the idea that following-up is just business -- it’s not personal. Also, I realized that getting in the habit of setting straightforward, fairly simple tasks and being in the habit of completing them helps make me feel I’m being productive, which is no a small feat when there’s little paying work to keep me otherwise occupied.

Now, I’ll bet you’re wondering about the title and how it relates to habits. As I said, I knew I had written about habits before and so I pulled out the earlier column. After re-reading it and thinking about whether I’d be rehashing something I’d already written, I noticed the date on it: January 15, 2003 -- five years to the day!* Well, as you can imagine, THAT got me thinking too…

Is it a coincidence that I find myself preoccupied with my own habits in mid-January? Hmmm…let’s see… The skies are gray, the days are cold and short, and we’re inundated with ads for things like diets, exercise programs, and smoking cessation methods. So what do you think? Is it me, or is it just that time of year?

*FYI, I e-mail On being ... to some readers on the 15th and 30th of each month and I post it on the blog the next day.

© 2008 Ingrid Sapona