Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Not so restless about getting older...

Greetings, readers!

Yes, yes - I know I've been away for far too long.  My apologies to those who've been waiting for the next installment and my thanks to those who have lovingly inquired about my whereabouts.  I'd like to say that I was abducted by aliens or out discovering a rare cure for stupidity but, alas, such is not the case.  I can only offer the lame excuse of having been incredibly busy with work and missionary preparation plans for my son and a rigorous volunteer schedule.  The good news is it provides so much material for us to cover in upcoming blog entries...

So - what to talk about!  Given some of the sullen headlines in recent weeks, I've decided to choose something positive and share some personal takeaways from what I believe is a wonderful story of determination, hope, and the power of a personal dream!

Let me start with a question.  How are you feeling about your age, your current station in life's journey?  It's a question people often reflect upon when approaching a birthday, an anniversary, or a milestone at work.  And too often the responses I hear (or hear about) are negative, depressing or something nearly approaching defeat or surrender.  Why the angst over getting older?  What's behind the need for desperate attempts to turn back the hands of time and revisit an earlier era or a younger age?  Having recently turned 43 last month I have to admit I find myself happier and more fulfilled than at any time in my life.  Granted, the bones creak a little more and the stretching sessions last a bit longer than in days past but those are creaks and aches that have been earned from living well these past four decades.

Might I offer an alternative viewpoint?  Yesterday, Diana Nyad set an amazing record by being the first ever - man or woman - to swim unassisted between Cuba and Florida.  She navigated the 103 miles over some 53 hours, all the while battling exhaustion, nausea, hunger/thirst, the elements, saltwater ingestion illness - all to accomplish a goal she had set years earlier and attempted four previous times without success.  Impressed yet?  How about when you consider the fact that she achieved this amazing feat at the tender age of 64?
If you've not had the opportunity I encourage you to visit some of the press releases about her journey and her comments shortly after exiting the water.  Interestingly, her first quote upon reaching shore and falling into the arms of one of her support staff becomes the thrust of my message in this entry.  She exhaustedly quipped, "I've got three messages.  One is we should never, ever give up.  Two is you never are too old to chase your dreams.  Three is it looks like a solitary sport, but it's a team."  How apropos that the three points she shares upon completing her impossible task also serve as a formula to live life to the fullest, regardless of your age.  Let's dive in!

Never ever give up

I think the important point to remember is there's no such thing as "too far gone" or "beyond hope".  Anyone with a desire can change their physical well-being, their career aspirations, their educational pursuits, their life plan.  I hear stories of this all the time, like the fifty-something father who decides to lose 150 lbs. to ensure he's there for his wife and children.  Or the forty-something empty nester who decides to return to college to compete a law degree and start a new career as an attorney.  Our lives are filled with examples of real people - mortal, imperfect, flawed, human - who make the decision that it isn't over until it's over, that you're as young as you choose to be, and that the only limitations or restrictions that exist are the ones we create in our own minds.

You never are too old chase your dreams

What a beautiful and eloquent statement!  And one has only to look at the life of the woman who uttered these words for confirmation.  Diana began swimming seriously in the seventh grade.  Under the supervision and coaching of the legendary Jack Nelson she won three Florida state championship titles while in high school in the 100 and 200 meter events.  During her preparations for the 1968 Olympics, she suffered a heart infection, endocarditis, leaving her bed-ridden for three months and ultimately robbing her of precious speed upon returning to the pool.
It was at this time in her life that she shifted her efforts to marathon swimming - covering long distances in the water where performance was as much a mental battle as a physical one.  Under the tutelage of Buck Dawson, director of the Florida International Swimming Hall of Fame, Diana began competing in and winning long-distance events, setting multiple world records and distinguishing herself for her ability to dissociate during her swims - a coping mechanism used to mentally overcome fatigue, stress, and exhaustion.  She is the author of several books, an inductee in the International Women Sports Hall of Fame, a celebrated journalist and a motivational speaker (and she once ranked 30th in the world among women squash players).  All this, and yet something was missing...

Thirty-five years ago Diana set out to swim from Cuba to Florida.  At 29, she was an accomplished marathon swimmer, having set numerous records for similar feats, but her dream was to be the first to successfully navigate the waters between Havana and the Keys.  And in four consecutive attempts she failed.  There were substantial obstacles - jellyfish stings to her body, face, and lips; an uncooperative Gulf stream current; life-threatening lightning storms - not to mention the physical and mental challenges of swimming without the security of a shark cage in the open ocean with waves, currents, darkness, cold and salt water all in opposition of her goal.  Four times she tried - and four times she failed.

None of these obstacles or setbacks, however, prevented her from pursuing her dream.  She took all the doubters and people concerned with her age and simply beat them back with the power of conviction and the strength of pure will.  At 64, everything fell into place - the combination of her preparation, her years of swimming, and past experience swimming long distances.  She accomplished her dream, and has already set her sights on new challenges with long-distance swimming, now to raise awareness and money for people in need.  She's living her dream - because you're never too old...

It's a team

The journey of life is challenging.  Like Diana's navigation of the waters, we face numerous obstacles, both seen and unseen.  There will always be setbacks, but the beauty of life is we don't have to face them alone.  Diana had a small army helping with her preparations for a record-breaking journey across the sea.  Divers, boaters, kayakers, medical personnel, close friends - all working in harmony to help her accomplish her goal.

Isn't it the same in life?  Think of the people around you - the close friends, family members, colleagues.  There's never a reason to go it alone.  There's always an opportunity to extend a hand, to ask for help, to seek encouragement and find it in the words or actions of another.  Diana's story is a wonderful illustration of the power and importance of cultivating the right friendships, of strengthening the relations of family, and of never meeting a stranger.  No matter your ambitions, your pursuits, your dreams - there will always be someone else with similar interests and there will always be someone willing to help you accomplish your goals.

Keep dreaming, readers.  Congratulations, Diana, for the wonderful example you set for all of us that it's never too late and there's no such thing as "too old" or "past your prime" or "over the hill".  If you're any indication, I've got a solid twenty or so years before things get truly interesting...

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The power of personal branding...

The concept of brand or branding seems to dominate our professional and social culture these days.  Everywhere you turn there's an article or a book or a keynote preaching the importance of brand - establishing your brand, strengthening your brand, protecting the brand, etc.  Doubt the validity of its importance?  Well, simply close your eyes and picture an apple logo or swoosh symbol and ask yourself what else comes to mind?  Ask yourself what products you envision while pondering that particular apple or swoosh?  What adjectives would you associate with those products?  Doesn't take much effort to realize that the concept of brand can be a pretty powerful thing.

I co-facilitated a training session with several colleagues (Heather and Jill, I still have fond memories) and wanted to share several points from that training content in addition to some of my own research. The American Marketing Association dictionary defines brand as "a name, term, design, symbol, or any other feature that identifies one seller's good or services as distinct from those of other sellers."  Historically, the term originated from the Old Norse word, brandr meaning "to burn" as exemplified by ranchers who literally put their mark on cattle, some of our earliest brand champions.  Consider the words of Scott Bedbury, an immortal in the advertising world for his concept of "Just Do It" (Nike) and the rebranding of Starbucks:  "A great brand taps into emotions.  Emotions drive most, if not all, of our decisions.  A brand reaches out with a powerful connecting experience.  It's an emotional connecting point that transcends the product."  As you think of several corporate brands near and dear to your heart, do they succeed in tapping into your emotions?  Positively or negatively?  And how likely are you to change your mental or emotional perception of that entity?
The evolution of several popular brands...
I'd like to spend a few minutes and talk specifically about the responsibility and power that each of us has in the most important brand of all - that of our personal/individual brand.  A personal brand is essentially our reputation, the way in which we are perceived by others, the summation of adjectives, descriptors, and emotions that are conjured up when our name is mentioned in conversation.  How am I perceived by others: smart, lazy, arrogant, sarcastic, dare I say....restless?  What do I stand for?  What are my convictions, core values, and principles and are they reflected in my thoughts, words, and actions?  In the long-term, what will others say about me when I'm gone?
Dare to be different - to stand out in a crowd...
I found a great article on WikiHow that provides a step-by-step plan for creating a personal brand.  You can find it here... How to Build Your Personal Brand.  Several of the steps that really stood out to me were: set goals for your public image; keep your brand fresh; be ubiquitous without over-reaching; and get people talking.  I would also add that a personal brand possesses many elements: your personal brand as a parent, a child, a sibling, a citizen, a colleague, a friend.  It's important to think about your individual identity and reputation through each of these lenses as all of them play a crucial role in how you're perceived.
Another important observation is the interconnection between our personal brand and our professional careers, not to mention the impact personal brand can play in impacting a corporate brand, an employment brand, etc.  In our role as employees, our personal brand can't help but be reflected in the perceptions made by others who see us as the "face or voice of the organization."  It's inevitable.
What will be written here?
I'm taking the time to self-assess my personal brand.  To better understand how I'm perceived by those around me - the people closest to me.  And to make certain the personal brand perceptions I have for myself are consistent with the views and opinions of those I care about.  Some elements I'm concentrating on include: personality, dependability, passions, values, hobbies/interests, and the features/qualities that distinguish me from others.  It's been a healthy and eye-opening exercise so far - one I encourage you to try.

I'll end with some personal favorite quotations on the subject.

“Branding demands commitment; commitment to continual re-invention; striking chords with people to stir their emotions; and commitment to imagination. It is easy to be cynical about such things, much harder to be successful.” Sir Richard Branson

“Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.” - George Bernhard Shaw

“Be Yourself, Everyone Else is Already Taken”. - Oscar Wilde

Friday, April 12, 2013

How fairy tales and romantic comedies destroyed me...

For those of you that have followed my blog from the beginning, you'll recall that a number of my earlier posts focused on relationships and dating, or more specifically, the fact that I wasn't in a relationship and was therefore navigating (and sarcastically opining on) the world of adulthood dating.  For those of you that enjoyed those earlier explications on this often awkward topic - read on...you're in for a treat!

I've had some terrific relationships with some amazing women over the past several years.  I've even fallen in love a time or two - something I honestly thought I was no longer capable of following my divorce sixteen years ago.  And yet here I am - 42 years old - still single and searching.  And it's okay because I know exactly why I find myself in these particular circumstances - AND I know who or what is responsible for my predicament.  My attempts at a long-term relationship have failed and romantic comedies are to blame!  Allow me to explain...
I think I've known I was a hopeless romantic since childhood.  While most young boys were likely fully engulfed with sports, cowboys and indians, and weekend cartoons - I also enjoyed the stories used at bedtime or on long road trips that concentrated on romance and true love.  Damn you, Walt Disney and Hans Christian Andersen!  Snow White, Cinderella, the Little Mermaid, the Princess and the Pea - my earliest programming about love was shaped by these stories and my dreams involved many of these characters with me as the hero.  That's right, readers - I wanted the fairy tale.
Fast forward and this same affliction has been compounded with wave after wave of Hollywood daggers: Sleepless in Seattle, You've Got Mail, When Harry met Sally, Serendipity, Must Love Dogs, High Fidelity, Amelie, Say Anything, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Sabrina, Notting Hill, Two Weeks' Notice...  Essentially, the fairy tales from my youth have been coupled with newer tales, now starring Meg Ryan, Julia Roberts, Andie McDowell, and Kate Beckinsale.  And while my brain recognizes that these are fictional stories involving fictional characters living in fictional worlds, somewhere along the way I forgot to remind my heart and so it continues to want the fairy tale.  And it remains convinced that nothing less will do.
Now I recognize that life isn't a fairy tale and that the reality of relationships involves sacrifice, hard work, commitment to compromise, etc. and I'm completely on board with all of those things.  As stated above, I've met some amazing women and had terrific relationships where all of these concepts were put into practice.  And yet, up until now, there was always an element missing.  Something that I found difficult to define, describe, or explain - but clearly missing.  Let's call it the "X Factor" - the little switch in your head that says it's time to stop looking, the person you've found is all you're ever going to need.  Well, my X Factor has remained in the "off" position in most of my relationships, or has been abruptly turned back off for a variety of factors (some other blog entry some other time...).  And I'm going to remain single until I find the woman that succeeds in emotionally fulfilling that X Factor, putting my switch in the "on" position, and then locking the door to my heart where that switch can be found.  And, upon reflection, I'm convinced that my personal X Factor is that feeling of attraction, fulfillment, and recognition of one's soul mate as depicted in the fairy tales and romantic comedies that helped shape my definition of love; the result of hours spent daydreaming about having my own personal fairy tale, my own individual romantic comedy.  It can't be faked, it can't be manipulated, and it can't be duped.  And I want it.  And I need it.  And nothing less will do.
 So, as I see it, one of two things is going to inevitably happen.  On the one hand, I'm going to continue searching and exploring for my opposite number in the romantic comedy of my life, dreaming and hoping that I find the perfect foot for my glass slipper.  And my search will last a lifetime because the reality is that love and relationship wasn't ever really intended to work that way.  And I'll be the eccentric 80-something still seeking true love as defined by the tales and films of my youth.  Ick, that's depressing.  Enough on that - what's behind Door # 2?
On the OTHER hand, I'm hypothetically going to stumble upon somebody tomorrow or next week or next month or next year.  We're going to meet, we're going to get to know each other, and nature will take it's course.  The romantic comedy of my life will play out, my X Factor will be realized and resolved, the credits will role.  And what happens next won't be found in a script or movie or fairy tale, but for me all my dreams will come true and the ending (along with the journey) will be happy indeed...

P.S.  If anyone has the number for Audrey Tautou's agent, I have a role she'd be perfect for...   : )

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Restless about lessons learned...

Greetings readers!  It's been awhile - my apologies for the extended absence.  I was out of the country for several weeks, then away again for spring break retreat with my son (his last before graduating high school), and am finally returning to some measure of normalcy.  I hope I was missed - even if but just a little...

It occurs to me that I've shared very little in this blog regarding my professional career as a recruiter.  I spend the majority of my time focusing on personal matters and opinions here which is the intended purpose.  However, given a number of recent conversations and discussions with people in and out of the office, I'm inspired to step out of the mold just slightly and offer some perspectives from my work side.

For the better part of eighteen years I've dedicated my professional efforts and energies to corporate recruiting in a professional services environment.  I've likely had contact with several million candidates over the course of my career; been involved with hiring several thousand individuals; trained thousands more on how to attract, interview and evaluate talent; and helped establish and define processes and methods that I hope have allowed the organizations and teams I've served to operate more effectively and efficiently.  My career has literally taken me around the world - I've worked on projects in Asia, Europe, the Middle East, Australia, North and South America, and the Caribbean.  Everything from entry-level recruiting at colleges/universities to executive-level recruitment negotiating multi-million dollar compensation packages - I like to think I've been around the proverbial block a few times and know a bit about my chosen craft.

I'd like to share a few of the things I've learned over the course of my career.  I don't profess to have all the answers and there are certainly persons more qualified and educated than I to offer pearls of professional or inspirational wisdom.  Still, as this topic comes up often in my meetings and conversations these days, I thought it might be time to organize a few thoughts.

Do what you love

Without question, the most valued professional advice I can offer anyone is this: find your passion and make it your profession.  I was blessed to stumble accidentally into my career and I've loved recruiting from day one.  For me, little else could offer the same social interaction, stimulation, and fulfillment than what I do every day.  And because I love it, it feels less like work and more like fun - and isn't that the point?  Consider a 40-50 hour week, multiplied by the number of weeks in the year and the probable number of years served in a career and that's the time investment we're talking about.  I can imagine nothing worse than spending that time doing something tedious or uninspired - so don't!
Wonka never worked a day in his life...
Cultivate relationships

We often hear about the power of networks in business.  How they are so critical in sales, marketing, recruitment.  I'd like to make this a bit more personal.  It's not about names in a Rolodex, it's about personal relationships with the people you interact with - colleagues, contacts, candidates, everyone.  Forming lasting relationships is one of the aspects of my job that I enjoy most.  I've known a good number of my current colleagues at Ernst & Young for close to two decades.  I've dined in their homes, we've vacationed together, they've watched my son grow up - they are family.  And family is what you want if and when possible.

Social media is great and professional networking has its place but nothing will substitute for the interpersonal relations you develop with managers, coworkers, division heads, interns, and younger talent.  Be a mentor, become a friend, make a personal positive impact with these individuals and the return will last a lifetime.  And keep these relationships active and fluid - reaching out regularly, not just when there's a need.
Make a difference

In my opinion the best part of a candidate resume is the 1-2 bullet points dedicated to what they did in  a particular role that was different than anyone else.  Not all candidates understand the importance of taking this approach and instead simply recite the basic job functions of whatever position they've previously held.  I think of job positions much like technology - they should be constantly evolving to keep pace with the demands of those that seek benefit from them.  Look at the phone, the television, the computer.  Consider how many evolutions have occurred in their design, shape, functionality, components, etc.  No matter your job title, think about what you can do to make it "job title 2.0", then "job title 3.0" and so forth.  Reexamine processes, methodology, key contacts, tools and systems, interpersonal skills - literally everything - and discover ways to make it better, smarter, more efficient.  If you love what you do, this will be a much easier exercise as passionate people tend to be better change managers in this type of endeavor.
Herb Kelleher at Southwest Airlines personified this concept!
Work hard and play hard - but at the same time

I've often heard the expression "work-life balance" and have to confess, I don't get it.  It makes it sound like the two concepts are exclusive of one another.  Why?  It doesn't have to be.  Irrespective of what you do, there are ways to make work fun, your interactions with others more stimulating, and your professional footprint more impactful.  Create a company softball team, sign up for a charity walk/run event in your area with people you work with, get involved with your corporate social responsibility initiative.  All are easy ways to blur the lines that divide work from life, labor from leisure.

And don't let what you do for a living completely define who you are.  It's an occupation and as such should occupy a considerable portion of your time and life - but it should be accompanied by hobbies, interests, and other involvements.  I've interviewed CEOs who've confessed that their biggest failures were ignoring their children and spouses during the years that mattered most; to recognizing too late that it was time they would never get back.  These are amazing men and women - names that at times appear on the front pages of the Wall Street Journal.  In short, they are people who know a thing or two about this concept and have learned too late the consequences of imbalance.  Don't fall victim to their same mistakes.

Pay it forward

No matter what you do, find opportunities to help others who are still attempting to find their professional path.  Maybe it's a more junior professional in your department, perhaps it's someone who's simply exploring career paths and is looking to better understand what it means to be in a certain profession.  Whatever the circumstance, make time to share what you've learned, what you've accomplished, and where you've fallen short.  While it might seem insignificant to you, it's invaluable to others and could help make or change a career decision, improve individual performance, impact someone else's life for the better.  I've helped to hire people who've approached me years later full of gratitude as that particular career move years earlier started them on a path to happiness and fulfillment. Take it from me - there's nothing more rewarding than those messages/conversations.

Know your craft and stay current

Let me illustrate this point with an example that's near to home.  Many people think recruiting is simply, well...recruiting.  It's been done in much the same way for years.  But is that really true?  Think about the tools and the technology used to link recruiters with talent pools.  It used to be newspaper and magazines, then agencies and headhunters, then job boards, and now social media, mobile technology, and big data are again changing the recruitment landscape.  And tracking candidates used to be managed with resume file folders, then spreadsheets, then basic databases, and now complex Applicant Tracking Systems and Candidate Relationship Management tools that feed directly into company HRIS.  I imagine the same can be said for many other professions.  How has your profession evolved?  How have the tools changed?

Become and remain educated in your chosen career path.  Study the company you work with, familiarize yourself with the overall business model, the individual service lines, your competition, the regulatory and governing bodies that oversee your particular industry, the tools that you have internally and that are available in the external market.  There's a mountain of things to learn and the mountain is constantly changing and evolving.  Be an expert, both broad and deep, and it will continue to open doors for advancement and greater opportunities to make an impact.
I'm simply a huge Branson fan...
So those are just a few thoughts from your Restless Recruiter.  I hope they inspire you, or cause you to reflect - even possibly make a change or set a goal.  They are some of the more important learnings thus far from a career spent attracting, interviewing, and hiring some amazing talent and thought leaders in the professional services arena.

Until next time...


Monday, January 28, 2013

Restless about parenthood...

I'm proud of many things in my life - my career, my friendships, my family, my associations with colleagues (okay, my dating track record leaves a little to be desired but that is a work-in-progress and I was out of action for a number of years so cut me a little slack).  But seriously, of all the accomplishments I think of in my personal and professional life, nothing affords me greater happiness than my role as a father.

Ever since I was a kid I longed to be a dad - to be the kind of man my father was to me and to have the kind of relationship and friendship with a child like I so fondly remember from my youth.  To laugh together, offer advice (and hopefully wisdom on occasion), to do things - anything and everything - together, and to be the best of friends.  My dad was my hero - plain and simple.  And I wanted to be somebody's hero, too.
Like a little doll...
I was richly blessed with a happy and healthy son.  I still remember the day he was born.  He came early - some three weeks premature.  He was so small, so fragile, yet so alive.  I remember commenting to my parents at the awesomeness of procreation - how indescribable the feeling to know that I had taken part in creating that little body and giving it life.  To know that my ex-wife and I had made that little guy is still humbling and surreal and miraculous.

Fast forward.  I am the proud, beaming papa of a tall, lanky, 18-year old named Kellen.    He is in a word - awesome, albeit a little hairier and smellier than the baby from the last paragraph but ever the miracle.  He is in many ways a "miniature me" - similar tastes in reading, food, sports teams, etc.  And yet, he is so completely opposite me in other ways - personality, interests, career ambitions, etc.  He is a juxtaposition of the Restless Recruiter's yin and yang - both what I am and what I am not - and I couldn't be more pleased.  And yet...
Kellen and his cousin - when binkies were cool...
This year will mark a number of key milestones in my son's life.  First, he recently completed his Eagle Scout, the first in our family to ever achieve this distinction.  This year he graduates from high school - that key time in a young person's life signaling the end of childhood and the beginning of adulthood.  Later this year my son will begin serving a two-year mission for the church.  We've no idea where he might be called to serve.  I was sent to Brazil for my mission, my brother to Chicago, our friends to countless other locations, domestic and abroad.  He could literally be called to serve anywhere around the globe.  And finally, prior to departing for his mission, we'll be submitting applications for colleges/universities where he hopes to attend following his missionary program.  And all this will take place over the next nine months.

Father and son - when Hugh Grant hair was cool, apparently...
Now I could easily launch into an introspective rant against the passage of time - where did the years go, our children grow up so quickly - but I'd rather focus on the excitement of the moments still to come.  The thrill of knowing my son is now a young man, armed with the opportunity to go into the world and stake his claim.  It's a time of reflection.  Have I taught him what he needs to know?  Have I prepared him for what lies ahead?  Is he ready to stand on his own?  I can't help but think back on my maturity level at that age - just 19 and seemingly without a clue.  Is it just me or does my son seem so much more ready to tackle these challenges than I was?  So much more comfortable in his own skin?  I'm so excited for him to experience the great learnings and social interactions that impact a missionary serving his fellow man.  The service, the charity, the hard work - all will serve to build and shape character.  To enable him to see firsthand the value in giving yourself to God in faith - in allowing Him to make of my child what He will - and only He can.  Where will he serve?  Where will he attend college?  So many questions - and so many answers yet to be written...

My son, the future rocket scientist...
Sadly, I realize we'll shortly be closing a chapter in our relationship together.  A very special chapter as I think about our summer traditions, our Spring Break vacations, my relentless nagging and insistence he submit his high school homework on time (sorry, big guy - I meant well).  The little man from so many photographs and memories now stands two inches taller than his old man (yet still infinitely skinnier so...).  And he's so grown up.  And he's quiet, thoughtful, creative, and reserved - yet filled with an inquisitive mind, a desire to help others, and the same sweet spirit I remember since he smiled during the APGAR test within his first hour of mortality.

I can only imagine that the months ahead hold many tearful moments of nostalgia for me - of watching my boy truly become a man, of seeing him go out into the world to be a teacher, a missionary, an example to others.  I'm going to be an empty-nester in a more official capacity.  This will be our last summer before mission, college, career, and who-knows-what else.  I hope I've done enough - spent the time with him and had the experiences that will serve as a foundation for the rest of his life.  And I hope I've built enough memories to serve as a reserve against the many months of separation that will see us apart.  It's been so hard already having months of separation each year following the divorce.  I only hope I'm ready to go two whole years without his presence.

Kellen in the adult size...
My advice to all the parents out there is to not take a moment for granted in the relationships with your children.  Love them, play with them, pay attention to them.  The return on that investment is far richer than any stock purchase or bonus, more valuable than any portfolio or possession.  Because at the end of the day, I love my son and I know he loves me - what more could I possibly want...  

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Restless about Resolutions...

Happy New Year!  For several years now I've honored the tradition of spending at least part of the winter holiday in the warmth and comfort of the Caribbean.  This year was no exception as I recently returned from a scuba holiday in the Bahamas.  Imagine eight glorious days spent sailing around the Exuma Cays, twenty-two dives (including a midnight dive on New Year's Eve to ring in 2013), great food, warm weather, salty sea air, and an endless supply of Jack Reacher novels (I'm considering a "bromance" with Lee Child).  And I returned from my trip a Master Scuba Diver - a firm and fixed goal I had set earlier in the year that I was strongly committed to accomplishing.

That general concept of goal-setting each year is what I had hoped to reflect upon here.  That time-honored January tradition of the New Year's resolution.  Perhaps a few minutes on the history and then some perspective?  Let's dance...

Through the Ages

Celebrating the reset of the annual calendar and, with it, the concept of resolutions finds its recorded origins dating back to around 2000 B.C.  Babylonians held festivals and marked the beginnings of each new year by promising their gods to pay off debtors and return any borrowed items to their lenders.  Similarly, the Romans began each year by making promises to their god, Janus (where January got it's name), whose two faces symbolized beginnings and endings.

Specifically in American history, about 25% of American adults established New Year's resolutions at the end of the Great Depression.  Compare that number with approximately 40% of Americans who made resolutions during Y2K.  A University of Scranton study published this past year indicated 45% of Americans usually make New Year resolutions.  I can only hope that number will continue to rise each year as we (openly or privately) find a few moments during the season to reflect on ourselves, areas for growth or improvement, and opportunities to transform individual weaknesses into strengths.

Consider also that the objective focus of resolutions has evolved over time much like the traditions surrounding the New Year.  In the 1800s, typical New Year resolutions targeted good works: becoming less self-centered, more helpful, improving one's internal character.  By the year 2000, the majority of annual goals trended more towards overall appearance, body image, health, and diet.

The Numbers ain't Pretty

And how do we fare in actually achieving our annual goals?  We stink at it, unfortunately.  A 2007 University of Bristol study found that 88% of those who established resolutions failed, often within the first two months.  The 2012 University of Scranton study (mentioned above) indicated that only 8% of those surveyed reported achieving their resolutions from previous years.  There's tremendous opportunity and room for improvement, I guess.

Let us not be deterred, however, in the pursuit of this most noble of exercises and fond traditions.  Whether you're aspiring to live life more fully, be more thrifty with your finances, become more organized, achieve new levels of fitness or overall health, kick an unhealthy or unwelcome habit (smoking, unnecessary ranting, etc.), or be a more active contributor to helping the less fortunate - the annual tradition of establishing resolutions is an excellent exercise in self-reflection, self-improvement, and self-awareness.  It allows us to establish personal order in our lives, to retake some measure of control from the external demands of work, civic responsibilities, social media, mind-numbing television, and other pulls for our time and attention.

You've Got Mail

I have an older brother, an Air Force pilot who's been a role model, the family story-teller, and personal source of admiration for years.  Rob epitomizes what an older brother can and should be to a younger brother, but one of the traits he possesses that I most respect is his commitment to self-improvement on his own terms.  Rob is a big proponent of goals.  One of the traditions he started recently (several years ago) is writing a letter to himself in the third person at the start of each year.  In it, he reflects back on the previous year, what he was able to accomplish in terms of his annual resolutions, where he fell short and why, and some reflective observation about how and why he went astray.  He then uses the second half of the letter to establish his resolutions for the upcoming year.  What's more, he approaches this by first establishing some key themes - general concepts that he feels are important (e.g., get healthier) and then adding a series of specific daily, weekly or sometimes monthly action items that allow him to measure his progress against the larger resolutions (e.g., exercise 30 minutes daily, run 5 miles each week, etc.).

What's also great about the letters is he keeps them in his journal and reviews them throughout the year for an occasional reminder or to share with those close in his life to rally their support and participation in helping him achieve his annual ambitions.  I think it's a novel approach, not one I had heard before, and I admire his discipline and resolve to measuring his progress in pursuit of being a better man.

Good luck with your goals and resolutions in the New Year.  No matter your approach or tradition, may you find success on your journey to health, wealth, friendship, service, and charity in 2013.  Until next time!

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Stealing from Santa...

It's Christmas time!  The much anticipated holiday when we all (old and young) eagerly await the arrival of our cherubic hero, Santa, seated regally on his magical sleigh ever committed to that impossible task of visiting each and every home and showering us with the magic of the season - gifts and stockings laden with the returns from our holiday wishes.  Our families and friends all gathered together to celebrate with feast and fellowship, for this is Christmas!  Everywhere you turn there is evidence of the season - inflated snowmen and lit reindeer adorn front yards; lights, wreaths, and bows outline many homes; and decorated trees, garland and holiday candles furnish many of our homes and offices as witness to our participation in this grand event.  Across the country, Salvation Army representatives - "Santa's Soldiers" - collect donations and ring their magical bells.  Our nation's malls, bulging with frantic shoppers, herald their masses with music celebrating Santa, Frosty, and Rudolph.  Inside you can almost picture the veritable miles of lines of children awaiting their hopeful chance to sit on Santa's lap, share their magical wish for Christmas, and receive a candy cane and picture with jolly ol' St. Nick.  Truly magical!

Imagine a poor family arriving into your town just prior to the holiday from a faraway land.  A family that has never participated in our festivities and holiday celebration.  A family to whom each tree and wreath and Santa is foreign and not understood.  Imagine seeing them staring in disbelief and wonder at the flurry of activity before them - the lights and the music and the crowds.  How would you explain to them our holiday preparation and celebration?  How would you convey the story of Santa dressed in his red and white?  Of reindeer and chimneys and gifts wrapped in bows?  Of snowmen and Christmas elves and red nosed-reindeer?  Imagine the parents, curious and humble and awe-struck by the decorations and music and parties and food.  Now picture their son, almost a man, quiet and observant, his hair long and slightly unkempt, his hands and feet rough and worn from the journey.  And as you go to shake his hand, you feel the imprints of nail marks that once brutally pierced his palms and wrists.  What would your explanation be?

I propose that we could all benefit from being a bit more naughty this year in the eyes of Santa Claus.  That we dedicate ourselves to stealing a bit of his thunder and his celebration and giving it instead to this family of foreigners.  I think their story is equally magical and awe-inspiring - worthy of our time, attention, and praise - perhaps even our celebration.  Let's take a closer look at each of the members of this special family:

The Woman

It's like a headline from any newspaper in the country.  A young woman, single and not working, engaged to be married - finds herself pregnant.  The man she is to marry is not the father.  She lives in a land and at a time where such an act and offense is punishable by stoning, or death, or banishment.  Imagine having to explain your circumstance and condition to your soon-to-be husband.  Imagine the fear and frustration and faith needed to have such a conversation with him, with his family, with your friends and neighbors.  She's with child and faces a future of uncertainty, potential ridicule and public humiliation, and pain.  This is Mary.

The Man

Now picture the man, employed and respected in his community, in love with a woman he looks forward to marrying.  And she comes to him prior to the marriage and she's pregnant.  And she claims it's a miracle as she's still a virgin and that the father is God.  Putting this story and situation in modern-day perspective, what reaction might we expect from this man?  Anger?  Heartbreak?  Disbelief?  Now see the man believing the woman and taking her as his wife.  See them departing their homeland to travel over mountain and plain for tax obligations.  And the man is unprepared - he doesn't have lodging for their journey.  His wife is tired, hungry, in pain and he has neither the means nor the reservations to provide her a bed or pillow, scarcely enough for a meal.  He's forced to seek shelter in a barn, placing his wife amongst the cattle and sheep, the musty and dank smells of hay and poop and barnyard animals.  But he loves his wife and does his best to make her comfortable and warm.  This is Joseph.

The Child

And their baby is born.  There in that small town of Bethlehem in that barn near an inn, in those poorest and humblest of circumstances.  No bed, no blankets, no epidurals, no sterilized equipment, not even a doctor or nurse present to assist.  Miraculously he makes it.  And he's healthy, and happy, and strong.  And he's different.  He is perfect, without blemish, without flaw, without complaint, without sin.  And almost immediately he is hunted by those in power, believing in signs and prophecies that he poses a risk to their claims of nobility.  And other children around him are murdered by soldiers owing loyalty to those in power.  So Mary and Joseph, loving their son, keep him in hiding, fleeing their homeland and country to protect their young son.  And he has few toys.  And he has fewer friends.  And he is often alone.  This is Jesus.

Room for Both

So let us keep our traditions, our celebrations, our festivities.  I don't suggest that there is harm in Santa, or Rudolph, or Frosty.  I simply believe we need to steal back a little of the time and attention granted to St. Nick and return it to its rightful owners.  To remind ourselves of the miracles that occurred on this day of celebration, and to recall the cast of characters that played an important role in that miraculous story.  To remind ourselves of that foreign family visiting us at Christmas time - the mother, the father, and child.  And to make sure our holiday season and the traditions we offer our families and children are more than just snowmen and stockings and Santa.

Away in a manger,
no crib for his bed,
The little Lord Jesus
laid down his sweet head;
The stars in the heavens
looked down where he lay,
The little Lord Jesus, asleep on the hay.

Merry Christmas, everyone!  May the spirit of the season touch us all.  May we pause to remember and pray for those 26 souls and their families, including 20 precious children, whose lives were cut short.  But may we also take comfort in the fact that they are returned to their Savior, whose birth we celebrate this season.  God bless...