On being … about time

By Ingrid Sapona
I periodically cull through things. I don’t really like doing it, but I generally feel good when I’m done. What I find most frustrating about it is that even when I know I’ve gotten rid of lots of stuff, someone walking in afterward might not notice much of a difference.

This time around was a more thorough de-clutter than usual. I went through the freezer (yup – got rid of that year-old chopped red pepper and a freezer-burned hamburger bun, among other things), a “junk drawer” that had old maps and an unusual assortment of telephone cords (I find it hard to believe I ever owned that many phones), a drawer that was full of VHS tapes, my wardrobe accessories drawer, and my office.

De-clutter gurus all have rules of thumb they suggest applying. For example, when it comes to clothing, a common one seems to be that you should get rid of things more than two years old (or maybe it’s two seasons – I’m not sure). Personally, I’ve never found such suggestions helpful – if I’ve hung on to something for any length of time, it’s because I’ve got some sentimental attachment to it. And, when that’s the case, no arbitrary rule really matters.

Of course, some things are easier to get rid of than other things. Getting rid of the phone cords was a no-brainer. Old maps – well, they carry memories of past trips. This time I let myself linger over the memories for a few minutes and then put the maps into the recycle pile. VHS tapes – another easy call, since I don’t even have a tape player any more.

There were two categories of things I had trepidation about even going through: jewelry and the books. These were things I’ve given myself a pass on culling through for a LONG time. And, given my history of hanging on to these items, I knew I was going to have to come up with some pretty good self-rationalization for parting with them.

Since the jewelry was in my accessories drawer, which was on my must tackle list, it came before the books. I wouldn’t characterize the jewelry as “costume” (which I tend to think of as big and glitzy). It was the kind of thing you wear to work. Some of it was mass produced, but most of it was handmade stuff from craft shows. The idea of the pieces being sold for 50¢/each at the local charity thrift shop just didn’t feel right.

As I was looking through the jewelry, the perfect place to donate it came to mind: Dress for Success. It’s a charity that provides “gently used” suits and professional clothing for disadvantaged people who need them for job hunting. A quick check of their website confirmed that they take jewelry. Perfect! As soon as I realized the jewelry would be put to good use, sorting through it and carefully pairing all the earrings was actually fun. After dropping the jewelry off, I was energized and so I started contemplating the bookshelf.

Over the years I’ve gotten rid of many books, but I still had three full shelves – in fact, a couple of them have books hidden behind books. Of the remaining volumes, the most troublesome tomes, fell into two categories: philosophy and classics from university; and cookbooks.

There were a number of reasons I still had these particular books from university. It was no accident that the ones I kept were attractively bound and impressive – a reminder of a rich, rigorous liberal arts education. But who am I trying to impress, I finally asked myself. Good point, but, on its own, not a compelling enough reason to get rid of them – after all, I reminded myself, these are important reference sources. (You never know when you’ll need to cite Plato’s discussion of shadows, right?) So what if I haven’t opened any of them in over 30 years – reference books are like that – until you need them, they just sit there.

Then, just as I muttered that last sentence, the big Ah-ha hit me. I do a fair bit of research for work, but these days it’s all on-line. “Looking things up” no longer involves opening up a book – it involves the Internet. In fact, that rationale applied to the cookbooks too. If there’s something I want to make and I don’t have a recipe for it, I’m way more likely to look on-line than I am to leaf through the cookbooks on my shelf. (The cookbooks in the kitchen are a whole other story – those I do look through for inspiration.) 

As I was driving over to the thrift shop with the four bags of books, I was thinking about my decision to finally get rid of them. I chuckled at the idea that I had held them prisoner for so long. Indeed, I felt by donating them, I was sort of doing them a service – now they can be read, enjoyed, and perhaps kept as a reference by someone else.

© 2015 Ingrid Sapona


On being … model behaviour

By Ingrid Sapona

Last week I was in Buffalo visiting my octogenarian mother. It’s tax time and a library near her hosts an AARP tax clinic two mornings a week. The service is free and they do a terrific job. So, about this time every year I phone the library to find out what days the clinic runs and then make a point of getting to Buffalo to get Mom’s taxes done.

The clinic is popular and they sometimes have to turn people away. But, they’ve got a system that’s pretty fair, if somewhat unusual. It’s basically first-come, first-served, but there’s a bit of a twist.  Though the clinic starts at 10 a.m. (when the library opens for the day), on mornings that the clinic is held, someone puts up a sign-up sheet on the library door at 8 a.m. The trick is to get there early and get your name on that sheet, which has space on it for about 20 names. Then, when the clinic opens, if your name’s on the list they do their best to get to you before they close at 1:30 p.m.

Monday morning was cool – 27°F – but sunny. The roads were dry, but driving was a bit tricky because it was hard to see around all the huge piles of snow along the edges of the roads and at corners. (Buffalo had a rough winter even by Buffalo standards!)  My plan was to get there at about 7:45 a.m. On my way to the library I stopped and bought a coffee, figuring I’d sip it in the warm car while I waited for the sheet to go up.

Well, when I pulled up at 7:50 the parking lot was nearly full. I wasn’t surprised others were there before me, but I couldn’t believe all the seniors were waiting out in the freezing cold! I figured we’d all sit in wait in the warmth of our cars. I parked and went to join the line.

As I zipped my jacket up, the woman in front of me in line smiled and commented about how lovely a day it was. I mentioned that I was surprised there was already quite a lineup and she pointed out that it’s because that morning was the first nice morning they’ve had this winter and folks are probably anxious to get their taxes done. The senior in front of her voiced his agreement. 

As others arrived, I couldn’t help notice how many said good morning and welcomed people to the line. There was a definite social aspect to the whole thing and no one seemed the least bit put out about waiting in the cold. She then told me that last week she was there for her return but when she got home she noticed her address was wrong so she was there just to get it corrected. When I commented that I bet she felt frustrated, she laughed and said it was ok. In fact, she hoped the guy who prepared her return last week was there again because she was going to tease him and say that she figured he made the mistake just so he could see her again! How cute is that? And what a positive way of looking at the inconvenience of standing in line in the cold.

Since I was 13th on the list, I returned to the clinic at about 10:45. There were six volunteers – all seniors – sitting behind laptop computers, each with another senior (the person whose return they were preparing) sitting across from them. As they worked, they focused on what they were doing, but they also cheerfully chatted with the person they were helping and with fellow volunteers.

All of the volunteers were old enough to have grown up with typewriters and carbon paper rather than computers and printers, and they were a bit slow on the data-entry front, but no one seemed to mind. If one of them had a problem printing, or got an error message, another volunteer would help and the two of them would figure it out.

I couldn’t help notice how good humoured everyone was and how patient. No one was in a rush. No one was chatting on a phone. None of them had even brought the newspaper or a book to read while they waited. Instead, they just made small talk about this and that with others who were waiting. As I sat there, watching how calm everyone was, I could actually feel my normal fidgetiness ebb.

The rest of that day I thought about those seniors and their behaviour. They seemed to notice and appreciate so much more than many of us do. It was a cold day, but they saw it as warmer and sunnier than it had been for weeks. And they didn’t mind lining up – they were just grateful that the clinic existed and that they could get to it. And rather than seeing the clinic volunteers as being there to carry out a task, they saw them as folks they might make a connection with and have a conversation with.

As children, we look to our parents and their friends as role models. But, as they become seniors and we start to help them with more things, we often think we don’t have anything more to learn from their behaviour. That morning helped me realize what a mistake that is. Those seniors were wonderful role models. They demonstrated hardiness (getting up early and braving the cold), patience, sociability, and gratitude – qualities many of us should work on.

© 2015 Ingrid Sapona


On being … credible

By Ingrid Sapona

A few weeks ago I spent an afternoon touring wine country with Ellen (not her real name), a woman I met at a professional meeting a couple months ago. We both do plain language writing and editing and we both work for ourselves. When I was given a couple tickets to a wine tasting, I asked Ellen if she’d like to join me. She said yes and we ended up making a day of it.

Because we didn’t know each other too well, the conversation was quite freewheeling. We talked about our experiences growing up, our families, and, of course, our work. Indeed, since we’re in the same field, we talked a lot about the business challenges we face and compared notes about how we deal with them.

At some point during the course of the afternoon, I noticed that I used the word “credibility” a lot. I honestly don’t remember all the different contexts in which I used the word that day, but I was surprised at how often I said it. So much so, in fact, I began to feel self-conscious. Am I overly concerned about “establishing credibility”? Is my seeming obsession with credibility a reflection of insecurity, or is it just a skill I’m constantly working on because I think it’s key to building a successful business? If Ellen thought there was anything abnormal about my focus on it, she was kind enough not to let on.

Flash forward a few weeks to a series of meetings I had with the key players on a project team at a client. They were telling me about a crisis they’re in the middle of on an important project that has a variety of pieces that have to fall into place. The folks on the project are all highly skilled, talented, experienced, and hard working.

They shared with me notes about the project timelines and copies of various status reports the team has given to management. The crisis came about because a couple of the sub-groups working on the project are late with their deliverables. So, though the team’s original timelines were generous, due to circumstances beyond their control, the cushion they had built into the project has disappeared. In fact, the most recent reports make it clear that there’s no wiggle room left. From here on, pretty much any delay in any deliverable from any of the sub-groups jeopardizes the whole project.

In reviewing the project team’s reports to management, I was impressed by their open description of the problems they were encountering and their thoroughness in outlining the ramifications to the organization’s future in the event of failure. The team did their best to report what was happening on each piece of the project and they didn’t sugar coat their reports.

But, in reading the various reports, one thing that struck me was that the team didn’t think about the credibility gap they were creating when they repeatedly said, “we should know by next week”, or how bad it looked when weeks passed with no resolution of things they said would be resolved within “a week or two”. To me, that kind of loose talk undermined their credibility.

Indeed, management’s faith in the team has wavered and last week they brought in a consultant to review the team’s work. The team leads were shocked and hurt, especially when they realized that the review isn’t just of this project. It’s clear that their credibility with management has been severely impaired and now all their actions and decisions are under the microscope.

To their credit, despite feeling hurt by management’s actions, the team remains dedicated to seeing the project to completion while also working with the consultant to prove they’ve done nothing wrong. From what I’ve seen and read, I think the project will ultimately be a success and I think the team will be found to have been honest and above board in all their actions. I think the lesson to be learned from the whole situation boils down to credibility. And, even if all goes well (as I hope it does), I think the team will have to work hard to re-establish their credibility with management – and going forward they’ll have to be more diligent about maintaining it.

Reflecting on the situation the project team finds itself in with regard to its relationship with management – and my conversation with Ellen – I realize I really am obsessed with credibility. But you know what? Now I don’t think that’s anything to be embarrassed about…

© 2015 Ingrid Sapona