Things I wish I had known when starting out

Turn UpAdvice for new starters to the world of work.It is a long time now since I started work, 46 years to be precise, and it was a very different world back in 1968 when I first pulled on a lab coat and started shaking test tubes for a living. I was musing the other day on what might have changed and what hasn’t altered in those years. Here are a few of those thoughts, especially about what has not changed. I rather wish that I had known some of these things when i first started out.

  • The Pareto principle
  • The boss is not always right and the boss is (nearly) always right
  • Have a go at the hard stuff
  • People matter
  • Know when to stamp your foot
  • It is amazing what you can achieve if it doesn’t matter who gets the credit
  • When you set a deadline, mean it
  • Choose your battles carefully

Over the next couple of weeks I will be writing a short piece about each of them, but let me start with the most important of them all “Turn up”.

So what do I men by “Turn Up“?

Well we are paid to turn up for work, but I mean much more than that. Have you ever found yourself not really wanting to go, but feel that you have to? Have you ever found yourself distracted during the day (Facebook, Twitter, Shopping List, that attractive young guy/girl along the corridor) only to find that your attention to what you are doing has drifted? Have you ever wandered off to the copier or stationery store as a distraction from what you were doing? Answer ‘Yes’ to any of these and you were not Turning Up.

For me, Turning Up means giving my total attention to whatever it is that I am doing at the time – be that saying hello to my co-workers, writing a report, researching some data, whatever. Multitasking is a myth – the best we can do is switch between different tasks and every time you do that you lose a bit of time ‘shutting down’ what you were doing and ‘starting up’ what you are going to do – wasted time and a brain that can’t quite figure out what it should be working on.

So, when you are at work, BE at work. When you are with someone BE WITH them. When you are working alone WORK alone. And finally, when you have finished for the day GO HOME and be at home.

On forgiveness

forgivenessA few days ago I posted on our Facebook page what was described as a Buddhist prayer of forgiveness

If I have harmed anyone in any way either knowingly or unknowingly or through my own confusions I ask their forgiveness.

If anyone has harmed me in anyway either knowingly or unknowingly or through their own confusions I forgive them.

And if there is a situation I am not yet ready to forgive I forgive myself for that.

For all the ways that I harm myself, negate, doubt, belittle myself, judge or be unkind to myself through my own confusions I forgive myself.


This came to mind when I met a very old friend of mine a couple of days ago and we started talking about our joint experiences in the industry that we both served for over 30 years. What that conversation brought to my mind was an incident towards the end of my career when I believed, and continue to believe, that I was treated very poorly. The details are irrelevant, what is relevant in this context is my becoming aware just how passionately I spoke about this particular incident and how strong was my ongoing dislike of the perpetrators. Even talking about this 12 year old incident triggered feelings of anger that quite surprised me.

Interestingly, the outcome of the incident was satisfactory because somebody who has, in my view, a significantly stronger appreciation of the impact of the decision, not only on me but on the several thousand people who hear, about it stepped in and reversed the decisions that had so infuriated me. So in practice, the bad behaviour (and even 12 years later I still consider it to be extremely bad behaviour) had no long term objective impact. Yet here I am writing a blog about how that emotionally charged event can and does still leads to negative emotions even 12 years on. For some reason I have been unable to forget the perpetrators. And I wonder why.

Those of a religious persuasions tend to be advised to either turn the other cheek or pluck an eye for an eye – I do not fall into this camp and anyway I cannot agree with an eye for an eye and really don’t see the point of letting someone abuse me twice. Over recent years we have heard a lot about the importance of the psychological contract between employer and employee and it is clear in retrospect that not only was the legal contract broken but the psychological contract didn’t appear to have even been considered. I had trusted that my employer would honour the terms of the written contract we agreed and would continue to act honourably. Well neither of those things happened and it is now clear that that fundamental breach of trust, and in my eyes it was a very fundamental breach, lies behind my unwillingness to forgive.

Yet the paradox is that I really do believe that the individuals involved were doing the best they could in the circumstances. That it failed to meet my needs was perhaps a function of both me being unable to express those needs and them being unable or unwilling to hear and act on that request.

I have not met either of these individuals in the last 12 years, nor do I intend to, and yet the episode has been there in the back of my mind gnawing away and occasionally surfacing to sap my energy. That stops here and now. I forgive you ‘R’, I forgive you ‘K’.


So, my query to you dear reader is what events in your past are still there in the back of your mind, occasionally gnawing at your energy? Who do you need to forgive for what, and how are you going to do that? And as you are forgiving, remember that  your own ‘un-forgiving’ has served some purpose so perhaps the degree level question that follows your forgiveness is to explore what that secondary gain has been and how you replace it with something more constructive and life affirming.

Rattlesnakes can cause stress

Richard Bach has been at it again, this time he has stimulated my thoughts around change. Ask anybody who deals with change on a professional basis and they will typically tell you that either it takes a very long time or it can happen instantly, the latter usually when there is some sort of crisis to be dealt with. This requires a response outside our normal repertoire.

Richard Bach, brilliant writer that he is, put it this way:

It doesn’t take time to change once you understand the problem” he said, his face lit with excitement.” Somebody hands you a rattlesnake, it doesn’t take long to drop it does it?

Sometimes I was unaware that rattlesnakes were even around, sometimes I knew about the rattlesnakes but ignored them, sometimes the rattlesnakes transformed into a poisonous spider, but every now and again one of those rattlesnakes ends up in my hand. This is a bit like how some people deal with stress.

We wake up in the morning and someone has left the bathroom lights on all night (it’s not worth the hassle of finding out who and reminding them to turn it off in future), we go downstairs and the first thing we notice is the waste bin overflowing (who is it that is so lazy that they cannot be bothered to empty it and so just it just piles up. It falls on the floor), only try to fill the kettle up but we can’t because the sink is full of dirty dishes, then we find our favourite cereal has been used up, then there’s no milk, and the kids are late which risks me being late for the appointment that I have to meet after I’d taken them to school, then there’s an accident on the way there and I am delayed yet again, then the client I’ve been speaking to 4 weeks decides he wants a fundamental change in the proposal we have been working on, then I get home and my printer has run out of ink again, then the telephone rings and rings and rings but I am trying to concentrate on something else, then… (add in your own stressors will).

Then my wife comes in and asks what’s the dinner tonight?-And she gets it all dumped on her. I’LL TELL YOU WHAT’S FOR DINNER TONIGHT. WHAT’S FOR DINNER TONIGHT IS WHAT YOU COOK WHEN YOU WANT TO COOK IT….

Poor woman, a simple enquiry yet the stacked up stresses of the day just collapsed on her very ordinary question. And I spend the next week apologising and making it up – somehow.

If only I had dealt with those little things as they were happening…

If only I had dealt with the rattlesnake before it ended up in my hand…

Life is for living

Richard Bach - OneI have just been reading another wonderful little book by Richard Bach called “One”. I first came across Richard’s books when I was introduced to Jonathan Livingston Seagull over 30 years ago. JLS can take you half an hour to read or a lifetime; it can be a simple story about a Seagull are a complex parable about learning. For many years I never left the house without a seagull on a chain around my neck, until the day that I realised the seagull had flown away when the chain broke,  never to be seen by me again.

Anyway, back to this latest book “One”. He posits a situation and an exercise that I challenge you to take on yourself. Somehow or other  he meets himself in the future and that future self  knows, for certain, that he only has six months to live. Let me give you the exercise by quoting from the book:

“I think we ought to take this napkin here”, she reached into her purse, “and this pencil, and we ought to list what we want to do most and make this the best six months, the best time in our lives. What would we do if there were no doctors with their dos and don’ts? They can’t cure you, so who are they to tell others what to do with whatever time we have left? I think we ought to make this list and then go ahead and do what we want.”

I don’t know whether the subject of this piece was lucky or not that he knew for sure that he had another six months to live. I don’t know whether or not I will be alive when you read this entry-there is no reason why I shouldn’t be but who knows what happens on the roads or in that complex biochemistry that keeps is running every day?

So my challenge to you is to do the exercise, to figure out what it is that you want to do (not need to do – that’s usually someone else’s agenda), to make a list and to get out there and do it. Oh, there will be challenges, but isn’t a life full of those anyway? Yes, you might upset a few people but you are living your life and you probably only have one of them so you might as well get the most out of it.

And some people will tell you that it’s impossible, selfish, not affordable, etc  – those are their hangups. So let them deal with them rather than dump them on you. I urge you do this exercise , after all you might only have six months to live.

On avoiding procrastination

I have just said goodbye to a friend who lives in the most wonderful location across the river from Edinburgh – her (big) front window looks across the estuary into the heart of the city, spectacular on an evening. As she left, the usual stuff came out of my mouth “We should come up again…”. I just know that all I have to do is ask and the door will be open and I also know that it was just 2 minutes’ work to get out our diaries and arrange something there and then, yet we didn’t, we procrastinated.

Why? What is it that leads us to say “I should…” and then not do anything about it?

Well, I can also think of other times when I managed to get huge amounts done in a limited time – typically those last few days before a holiday when the ‘To Do’ list shrinks at a rate of knots, or when there is some other drop-dead deadline. What can these times tell us about how to make more effective use of our time?

It seems to me that the difference is something to do with committment. The drop-dead deadlines (which, of course, includes catching that flight to the sun/snow/sand…) somehow generate that sense of ‘must do’ which has a more compelling force than ‘should do’.

So perhaps there are (at least!) two things to think about when deciding what do do with your time:

1) How important is this appointment/meeting/day out/etc to me? The more important it is, the more likely the job is to get done and the more likely I am to start early just in case something comes up at the last minute. I am saying yes becasue it seems like a good idea, or because someone else thinks it is important – or because it meets my needs?
2) Am I hoping for something better to come up? Maybe the reason we did not arrange that weekend in Scotland was that we were not willing to commit in case something else came up that was more compelling. And of course if something else does not come up then we have missed an opportunity!

Whatever I face, if it matters enough to me I will organise around it. So decide what really matters, get those things in your diary first (Stephen Covey’s large stones) and then arrange everything else around those personal committments.