Be useful

 

Ralph Waldo Emerson quote

In my work, I get the privilege of speaking to and learning from different people every day. Last week, I was interviewing one of our executives, and I asked him if he had a mantra or a saying he lived by. His answer was, “Be useful”.

There is a lot written on the power of purpose. Motivational speakers like Oprah and Les Brown have built entire careers on it. Most of these speakers have a common message: to live a happy, fulfilled life, you must live a life of purpose or service. Being useful is the key to happiness.

The grand concept of purpose is a topic for another day. For some of us, it may be harder to see a clear path to what our purpose is for being here on this earth. But all of us can be useful.

We are useful when we plant seeds that will reap a bountiful harvest. We are useful when we take the time to listen to the cares and worries of a friend. We are useful when we make a special meal for a family member, or run the kids to yet another baseball game or practice.

A couple of years ago, I made it a personal mantra to do one thing every day at work to make my workplace a great place for people to work, learn and grow. Some days it’s buying a coffee for the person standing next to me in line. Other days, it may just be sending a note of thanks or appreciation to someone who helped me on a project. I realized the greatest way I could be useful was to help make my work a happy place to come to every day.

This week’s #HappyAct is be useful every day. Don’t worry about grand gestures. Focus on the little ones.

Attend a retirement party

Two women with drinks celebrating
Elaine on the right with her sister Lynn-Marie (also retired!) at her retirement celebration

I’ve attended a lot of retirement parties lately. Several years ago, my company announced a change to retiree benefits, and I think many of my friends and colleagues just decided it was time to go.

A couple of weeks ago, I attended the retirement celebration of my BFF at work, Elaine Peterson. You may recall Elaine, since she’s been a subject of blog posts like Show your spirit, You Can’t Buy Happiness, but You Can Buy Chocolate and Play Hookey for the Day.

While some people like to quietly slip out, Elaine helped plan an entire week of retirement festivities with lunches, dinners, and an after-work fete at a local bar. Today, I’m taking her to Handel’s Messiah for her retirement present.

On Friday, I celebrated the upcoming retirement of my friend Beatrice, who told us that Empire Life was the longest place she ever worked. She stayed because she liked the people she was working with so much and the work was always interesting and challenging.

There are so many reasons why these celebrations are so special.

I enjoy hearing the incredible stories and contributions my colleagues have made to their organizations, often over the course of decades.

I love seeing the smiles and laughter around the room and how genuinely happy everyone is for the person retiring.

I like seeing former colleagues who made the leap years ago who came to honour the newest recruit to their ranks. Without fail, they look ten years younger and say they are busier than ever.

But most of all I love the warmth and family feel of these gatherings. Like it or not, work is a huge part of our lives. The people we work with become our family. And when one of our members leaves us to embrace a new, exciting chapter in their life, we celebrate with them.

This week’s #HappyAct is to attend a retirement or honour the work contributions of a special colleague. And to all my friends who have made the leap into retirement or are making the leap this year, I am so happy for you. Enjoy, and don’t look back!

Aim for progress, not perfection

strive for progress signIn my line of work, I make it a mission to cut out jargon. There is one buzzword I’ve adopted and even grown fond of lately–the word agile.

More and more, you hear about agile teams, projects and processes. Agile methodology is when you plan out your tasks or work in phases, then measure and tweak along the way.

The reason why I like this word so much is because the agile approach embodies an inherent philosophy that has a direct impact on happiness —the importance of aiming for progress, not perfection.

Two of the leading experts in the field of perfectionism are Canadians—Paul Hewitt, a professor at the University of British Columbia and Gordon Flett at the University of Toronto. In just one of their many studies of 10,000 professors, they found a statistical co-relation that those pursuing a perfect solution had a lower number of publications, lower amount of citations and a lower impact on their profession. They also had a higher rate of depression, anxiety, eating disorders and, shockingly, a higher rate of suicide.

I’ve never been a perfectionist. I can’t imagine the burden that weighs on people of trying to be perfect or achieving the perfect result all the time.

I’ve learned there are many ways to skin a cat. When my team works on a design concept or develops communication plans at work, there isn’t any single right or wrong answer or method. There are simply different options and approaches with different merits and risks. You choose a course, try it out, see what works, then adjust your plan.

You learn most when you fail. Unfortunately one of the biggest issues in business today is organizations say they are willing to let their employees fail, but when push comes to shove, the focus on the bottom line wins out. Companies are so lean they can’t afford the time, money or resources to fail.

Still, aiming for progress, not perfection is a philosophy that can benefit just about every aspect of our lives. Trying to lose weight? Aim for progress, not perfection. Studying for a big exam? Planning a large event? You know the answer.

This week’s #HappyAct is to aim for progress, not perfection. Perfection is an elusive dream. Instead set small, baby step goals, and celebrate when you hit milestones.

Say what you mean

cat in the hat say what you meanWhy can’t people just say what they mean?

Being clear and honest would solve so many problems.

Relationships would be stronger because we would forge stronger connections from shared understanding.

There would be less uncertainty and confusion in the world.

We would make less mistakes.

We would save precious time from trying to interpret what the other person is saying or what they want.

Saying what we mean could also help advance our interests.

Look at Donald Trump. One of the key reasons he has gotten this far in the U.S. presidential race is because he says what he means. If Hillary Clinton stopped playing the political game, and just once, came out and blasted him, and said what she really felt, I wonder if she would see a spike in the polls in her favour.

Our reluctance to say what we mean is even more of an epidemic at work.

There are some professions where I swear they actually train you to speak in euphemisms and jargon. It drives me crazy.

Last week I got an email from a colleague. The first line was, “Here is the PPT that I presented to the RLT based on the work that the INV team did.”

Now, as it turns out, I actually understood the email because sadly, I’ve worked there long enough that half of these terms are second nature to me. But god help any new person in the organization, or someone who isn’t exposed to jargon and acronyms as much as I am.

Saying what you mean is even more important for some people, for instance, people with autism.

Because Grace has a tendency to interpret everything I say literally, I’ve learned to be as specific as possible in my language. For instance if I said, “I don’t care if you want to do X, you have to get your homework done first” or whatever the issue we were discussing, she would literally interpret it that I didn’t care about her. Having an autistic child makes you think about your language choice very carefully.

Of course, there are times, when it is better to not say what you mean. Here are some golden rules of communication to keep in mind:

  1. Think before you speak.
  2. If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.
  3. Always think about whether your words could be interpreted the wrong way or how they would make the person feel.

As Maya Angelou once said, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

This week’s #HappyAct is to say what you mean, keeping in mind the golden rules. Share a comment. Why do you think people don’t say what they mean?

Pamper yourself

The magn
The magnificent stone fireplace at the Chateau Montebello

As I shared last week, lately my batteries have been running dangerously low. Luckily, after two Fridays off and some precious down time, I’m now feeling a bit more like my old self again.

This weekend, Dave and I splurged and went for an overnight getaway, sans kids to the Chateau Montebello, in Montebello, Quebec. The largest log lodge in North America, the glory days of the Chateau are clearly in its past, but it was still charming in all its grandeur and brimming with history.

Built in only three months in the 1930’s, the Chateau has hosted world leaders and celebrities. Adjacent to its grounds is the Manoir Papineau, home to Louis-Joseph Papineau, the leader of the rebellion in Lower Canada in 1837. Both the Chateau and the Manoir are on the banks of the Ottawa river, a quiet oasis from the hubbub of Montreal and Gatineau.

Chateau MontebelloWe NEVER do this, but for the first time ever, Dave and I booked spa treatments on a weekend getaway. I had a facial and a rice body polish. Dave had his first massage ever.

After 90 minutes of pure heaven, I sat on the balcony of the spa overlooking the river trying to remember the last time I felt this way. I was so relaxed, I literally couldn’t get up–it felt like my bum was glued to the seat. I pried my newly polished torso from the chair and headed back to our room to meet Dave for dinner.

It turned out being pampered was a family affair this weekend. When we arrived the next day to pick up the kids from Dave’s sisters in Westport, I found Clare on her massage table. Maryanne, a registered esthetician who runs The Pampered Ladybug out of her house, gave both the girls pedicures and Clare a manicure.

This week’s #HappyAct is to pamper yourself—get away for a night, book a massage (check your health insurance—if you go to a registered massage therapist, there’s a good chance your benefits might cover the cost) or treat yourself to something you normally never would do. You deserve it.

girl getting a pedicure
Clare getting a pedicure from The Pampered Ladybug
painted toenails
The final results

Write your own employment contract

employment contractIt’s scary how many people I talk to fielding work calls and emails at all hours of the day.

This has what the work world has come to these days. But I’ll let you in on a little secret. You can write your own employment contract. I wrote mine years ago after I got laid off early in my career. Here’s what I promised myself:

  • While on vacation, I will not check my email. I’ll make sure I have sufficient back-up and confidence in my team to handle anything that comes up in my absence.
  • I won’t work weekends unless there is something out of the ordinary that necessitates cutting into my precious time with my family.
  • I believe that someone else’s lack of planning does not constitute a crisis in my day and I have pledged to never be the cause of a crisis for people I work with because of my lack of planning. That would be disrespectful.
  • I deserve and will take at least 10 or 15 minutes to eat my lunch.
  • Whenever possible, I will go for a short walk at lunch to clear my head, and get a few minutes of exercise and fresh air.
  • I will leave the office at a reasonable time each night so I can have dinner with my family. My productivity takes a nose dive about an hour after my normal work day ends, so it is not in my best interests or the best interests of my company for me to stay.
  • I will work my hardest and uphold the highest standards of professional integrity.

This week’s #HappyAct is to write your own employment contract. Do you think mine is realistic today, or am I a dinosaur? Leave a comment.

Reach out your hand in peace and friendship

Paris, Brussels, Lahore, Pakistan.

The world has become a bloody place.

I don’t claim to understand these terrorist acts, but I have been thinking about what drives a person to destroy human life and what we can do to turn hatred into love and acceptance.

I’ve also had a lot of different experiences in the past few weeks that continue to send these thoughts swirling in my head.

On Easter Weekend, we took Dave’s Dad to the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum in Hamilton. There was a special exhibit on Anne Frank that detailed her journey into hiding alongside Hitler’s rise to power. It was the week of the Brussels bombing and as I stood looking at the images of the Nazis in the 1930s, it was easy to draw parallels to today and how circumstances can make otherwise good people conduct acts of horror under the philosophical banner that the end justifies the means in fighting evil.

Leaving Hamilton and arriving at Union station in Toronto during rush hour on Easter Monday for business, I tried to imagine the destruction if a bomb exploded in the station. I thought of those people in Brussels and the images I had seen on television earlier that day of the Easter bombing in Lahore, Pakistan. Years ago, I had been in London, England a month before the bombs went off at the Kings Cross tube station. We had been in that station at least two or three times a day.

When my kids ask about these terrorist acts and whether they could happen where we live, my answer is always the same. “Yes, they can, but we cannot live in fear.”

Later that night, over dinner with a friend, we talked about everything going on in the world. We both admitted despite being “good people” and wanting to accept all races, creeds, cultures, we were not above profiling people (see an earlier blog post on stereotyping kids with autism).

Then I went and saw Johnny Reid and his What Love is All About tour at the KRock Centre in Kingston. I’m a huge Johnny Reid fan. I was fortunate to sit next to him on a plane to Nashville once. He was so genuine and generous with his time I became just as big a fan of Johnny Reid the man, as Johnny Reid the musician. During the concert, he said that one of the reasons he loves Canada so much is because it is one of the few countries in the world that truly accepts and celebrates diversity. His message was clear: love is the cure for the evils of the world.

It is hard to hate someone you know. This week’s #HappyAct is to say a kind word, or reach out and offer your hand in peace, friendship and acceptance the next time you experience fear or prejudice without basis. Get to know the person. Together we can try to change the world.

A bagpiper walks into a blog

Man in kiltSpecial guest blog by David Swinton.

Ok, I’ll admit it. When my wife started this blog, I rolled my eyes and said ‘God Help Us’. Why would any person feel she is in a position to tell others how to be happier?

For a while, I even nicknamed it the ‘Crappy Act’. But personally deep down, I knew that there was no one better qualified to accomplish this mission. I have known my wife for almost 35 years. To this day, she continues to amaze me with her positive, energetic look at life. You might not always agree with her take on happiness (what the heck is an Easter Chicken anyway) but you loyal readers still come week after week to expand your happiness quotient.

When she asked me to fill in for her this week, I knew exactly what I wanted to say. After my Mom died over a year ago, I spent a lot of nights asking myself why should someone so giving of herself be taken in such a cruel manner. As with all tragic events, I started to question my own existence and where I fit into this continually evolving saga we call life. As my thoughts drifted more and more, I realized how complicated my own life had become. Between work, hockey practices, 4-H, bagpipes and the general pace of the world these days, I felt myself struggling to stay engaged. What kind of life is that? You only get one shot at it, folks.

So, in response to this, I have decided to focus at least a half hour each day to the appreciation of the simplest things in my life. One day, it might be the cardinal that has mysteriously appeared after my mother (an avid birder) died. The next day it might be the sound of wind whistling through the large pines around the house. One night I might watch a flying squirrel drift into the feeder from the darkness of the forest. The next, read a good book in a quiet corner boiling maple syrup. Laugh with your child as she pranks you for April Fools or savour a cold Corona at 10 in the morning on a hot day. Kneel down while your 9 year old shows you how intricate insect galleries under pieces of bark from a dead tree can be. Explain to her that the simplest of organisms created something this beautiful.

Your assignment this week? Put the world away for a half hour, slow down and take the time to glean a moment of pure joy from your world. And next week, enjoy while someone with actual writing talent takes back this blog.

Be a mentor part 2: Matt’s perspective

Matt and his wifeSpecial guest blog

(Read part 1)

It took me awhile to figure it out, but, I am a writer. The longer I worked the more I realized my passion in life was with writing and communication. Since my current job involved no writing at all I was looking for a change. I didn’t want to leave my company or all of the insurance knowledge I had gained over the years, so I looked for an inside move. My sights were set on our company’s Communications area. Without any related experience or a related degree I knew it would be tough. I needed some help. That’s when I reached out to the one person I knew in the Communications area, a person I had been looking up to for inspiration for years, and asked her if she would consider mentoring me?

I had no idea what to expect when I asked Laurie if she would be my mentor. I was hoping she would accept, meet with me a few of times, give me a couple of writing assignments, and layout a rough map of what I needed to be doing to get where I wanted to be. Well, almost two years later our monthly meetings have continued and the scope of our discussions have expanded to more than the narrow field of communications.

Is this mentor – mentee relationship what I expected?

NO!

It was much, much more.

Professionally, my mentor has given me more than I expected.

  • She has shared her vast network of contacts with me.
  • Guided me on where the company is moving and where opportunities for experience and jobs will be.
  • Brought me up to speed on what industry leaders to follow and what books to read.
  • Stressed exactly the things I needed to do in our company to succeed (and have a chance at moving into the career I dream of).

Helpful? Very!

But, it was the non-professional things that had a bigger impact on me.

  • I am more motivated now then I have ever been in my work. Not only do I have that dream of moving into a communications job, but with my mentor’s support it feels like it is a realistic goal.
  • Having someone you trust, to share personal work related problems (such as conflicts with coworkers or management) is invaluable. Especially if that person, like my mentor, has been on the other side of the fence in management roles.
  • It has made me more empathetic. My mentor has changed the way I view those above me. She has allowed me to see the more human side to those in supervisory/managerial/directorial roles.

I did not expect this mentor mentee thing to cause such a monumental change in the way I feel about work, but, it definitely has. I am a much better employee in every way because of it.

This week’s #HappyAct is the a repeat of last week’s: find someone to help you grow. And thanks, Matt, it’s been a slice!

Contributing author: Mathew is a very productive and sarcastic cubicle citizen who reads way too many Dilbert comics. He blogs about his life outside of work at theplaceunderthepine.blogspot.ca.

Be a mentor

Me and my mentee MattFor the last two years, I’ve been in a mentoring relationship at work. I say mentoring relationship, because even though I think my role is technically the mentor, I’m pretty sure half the time I’m the mentee.

I knew a little bit about mentoring from some research I had done and from people I’ve known that have benefitted from having a mentor. But I had never taken the step to approach someone to help guide me in my career.

It’s been such a rewarding experience and I can safely say I’ve learned as much from Matt as Matt has hopefully learned from me. I’ve also learned a lot about myself and what I have to offer to others.

Here are some of the benefits I’ve discovered–some expected, and some quite unexpected–of mentoring.

  • In a mentoring relationship, you are constantly learning and sharing. Matt and I both blog and are involved in our kids’ school parent councils—we share ideas regularly on how to promote our blogs and council events through social media.
  • When Matt first approached me about being a mentor, my first thought was what could I possibly offer? I’ve learned that I have a lot to offer from years of experience dealing with people and issues at work.
  • Having someone you trust and can confide in is precious. Recently, I shared something with Matt that I have not shared with my team or my boss. It was something quite personal, and it felt good to be able to open up to someone who wouldn’t judge me and help me gain perspective and support me.
  • A mentor is a great sounding board. Often in our careers, we know the right course of action, but you just need a bit of advice or affirmation you’re doing the right thing.
  • A mentor can help you achieve your goals. By sharing your goals and making them “talk goals” you are far more likely to achieve them.
  • Having a mentor can also broaden your perspective and give you insights on other areas of the organization.

Tips to get the most of your mentoring relationship.

  • Meet regularly—we aim for 30 minutes each month
  • Try to set one goal or topic for each meeting
  • Trust is key—find someone who you can trust and who will respect your confidence

This week’s #HappyAct is to find someone who you can help you grow. Want to hear the flip slide? Read Matt’s perspective on mentoring next week.