Five things you need to know about encore careers

Encore careers

Are you ready for an encore career? Make sure you are financially and mentally prepared to fly solo.

Baby Boomers are reinventing retirement. Instead of fading into the sunset to enjoy piña coladas by the pool, they’re choosing to work longer—but not at just any job. Many are pursuing second-act or encore careers that combine their passion with a social purpose.

Encore.org says that as many as 9 million people aged 44 to 70 are getting paid for work that balances personal fulfillment and doing good. An additional 31 million in this age group are interested in making the leap into more meaningful encore careers.

A related trend is the increasing number of Baby Boomers who are starting their own businesses rather than retire. A survey by AARP found that 11 percent of workers aged 45 to 74 plan to start a business and 15 percent in this age range are already self-employed. AARP also found that older people are pretty good businessmen and women. Their success rate is high—71 percent are making a profit.

So here are five things you need to think about if you’re considering self-employment or an encore career:

1. Money

Take a look at the people on the Encore.org website. They’re transforming the lives of prisoners, assisting wounded veterans and helping to eradicate diseases—all really good stuff! But how do they make ends meet?

It doesn’t surprise me that the MetLife Foundation found that 67 percent of those in encore careers experienced gaps in their income during their transition. Fully one-fourth earned no money at all, and 43 percent said they earned “significantly less” than they had in their previous job. Of those who reported little or no income, 79 percent said the gap was six months or longer, and 36 percent said it lasted more than two years. Most (65 percent) said they relied on personal savings to make ends meet.

Based on my experience, I strongly advise anyone who is thinking about self-employment or an encore career to have two years of living expenses in the bank. If you’re married or sharing expenses with a partner or roommate, you probably can reduce that amount. Hopefully, you will not need to draw on your savings too much, but it’s a good insurance policy. It also gives you enough time to fully complete your transition.

2. Time

I’m into my third year as a self-employed PR practitioner, and for the first time I’m feeling confident about my income potential. So give yourself enough time to succeed. Allow yourself two years, even longer for a business. There’s a reason it’s called a “transition.”

At the same time, do set goals for yourself and your business. Have a plan and review it. If you notice that you’re getting off track, you may need to change course. Either you weren’t realistic in setting the goal, or perhaps you need to make some adjustments in your business or career choice.

Understand, too, that changing careers or starting a business is hard work. Are you willing to put in long days and work weekends to make it happen? Do you have the discipline to stay focused? Make sure you are doing it for the right reasons. Because if your heart isn’t in it, you’re never going to succeed.

3. Learning and networking

Expect to spend a lot of time learning, which can be exciting but also overwhelming. I had never been self-employed before, so everything about managing a solo practice has been brand-new to me. I’ve tried to soak up as much as I can from others, read a lot, and go to workshops and seminars. Transitioning to an encore career may also require you to go back to school or receive special training.

Take advantage of networking opportunities and professional groups that are focused on your business or career area. You’ll meet people who are willing to share lessons learned and give you helpful advice. Look for volunteer opportunities in your encore career field while you’re still working at your regular job. Those opportunities may help you land a paying position.

4. Uncertainty

Starting a new career or business involves a lot of uncertainty. Are you okay with going without a paycheck for a while? Are you willing to abandon your comfortable routine for the unknown? If you are, and you see the possibilities and rewards that come with taking a risk, then maybe you’re ready for the plunge.

Some trepidation is only natural, especially in the beginning when you’re first getting started. But don’t let your fears keep you from doing the things that you’ve dreamed about and made careful plans to achieve. Keep on task. You can do it!

5. The long view

MetLife found that people interested in encore careers plan to work longer, which can boost their lifetime financial security. Having a meaningful job that you want to go to each day helps. You may be giving up some income to pursue your passion, but if you’re happier and willing to work a few more years, aren’t you better off in the long run?

One of the advantages of being self-employed is that it gives you the flexibility to cut back on your hours as you grow older but still stay active in your field. That’s my goal and why I take the long view. If I still like what I’m doing when I’m in my 60s, why shouldn’t I keep working? Heck, Warren Buffett is 83, and he certainly doesn’t need to work. But I bet he likes what he’s doing!

Previous posts you might find helpful:

‘The only thing we have to fear is fear itself’
Dealing with uncertainty
The value of a written plan
8 things you absolutely have to do to make it as an indie
In life, it’s always good to ‘test-drive’ major changes
Hats off to longevity and late bloomers
The ups and downs of a solo career
Accountability groups, success circles and self-discipline
Purpose and entrepreneurship
Extreme career makeover

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Writer’s block? Try tying yourself to a chair

McPhee, Hugo, Schiller

John McPhee, Victor Hugo and Friedrich Schiller conquered writer’s block in unique ways. What’s keeping you from achieving your goals? (Photo of McPhee from Princeton University’s Office of Communications.)

John McPhee tried tying himself to a chair so that he would stay focused on his writing. Victor Hugo had his servant take away his clothes each morning and remained in his room (supposedly naked) until he finished writing for the day. Friedrich Schiller kept rotten apples in his desk drawer, the smell of which spurred him to write.

The lengths to which writers will go to coax words onto paper is a very interesting phenomenon. You don’t expect creative types to have a problem being creative, but they do. In a fascinating piece last year for The New Yorker, McPhee relates that when he was working on an article for the magazine on the Pine Barrens of southern New Jersey, he had a huge case of writer’s block: “Out the back door and under the big ash was a picnic table. At the end of summer, 1966, I lay down on it for nearly two weeks, staring up into branches and leaves, fighting fear and panic, because I had no idea where or how to begin a piece of writing for The New Yorker.”

I remember reading a section of “The Pine Barrens” in The John McPhee Reader in college. Man, this guy can write, I thought. The breadth of McPhee’s interests and the details of the subjects he’s tackled are legendary. Nearly 50 years and 29 books later, McPhee continues to write and teach classes at Princeton. Yet, here he was describing in The New Yorker how he feels inadequate to the task of writing. “It doesn’t matter that something you’ve done before worked out well,” he says of his writing success. “Your last piece is never going to write your next one for you. Square 1 does not become Square 2, just Square 1 squared and cubed.”

This past winter and into the early spring, I had my own bout of restiveness with a lengthy writing project for a client. Some days the words didn’t come, and I would fret because we were on a tight deadline. Other days, the words tumbled out, and it was manna from heaven.

When the muse was absent from my home office, I would go upstairs to a spare bedroom, the cocoon room I called it, and sit in a rocking chair or on the bed with my laptop. I would force myself to write something. Into the night I worked. I fell asleep exhausted, and then I got up the next morning and did it again. I put off other client work or fit it in as best I could. I was determined to conquer the beast.

And I did. I completed the assignment on time, and everyone liked it.

A few weeks ago, I saw a copy of the finished work for the first time. It was one of those moments when you say, “How in the world did I do that?”

Now in my third year as an independent practitioner, I’m beginning to see how. I like the word practitioner because it has two meanings: a person who is actively engaged in a profession and one who is practiced; together, they neatly describe the mindset required to make it as an indie or solo-preneur.

To practice is to have discipline. To practice is to learn. To practice is to grow.

As a practitioner, I face each day with a resolve and determination that seemed missing before. I’m very intentional now about many things. I exercise every day (including weekends), and I’ve become very particular about what I eat. I do have my little junk food attacks from time to time, but nothing like before. I’ve lost almost 10 pounds since those dark days in the cocoon room, where I kept myself going with pretzels and cookies.

I keep distractions to a minimum. I don’t turn on the TV. I try to get to bed at a decent hour. I’ve even been setting my alarm clock for 5:30. Now that’s crazy, given that I’ve never been a morning person!

What does it all mean?

It means I have goals that I want to reach. I have milestones for my business, and I want to get to them. There’s a purpose to what I’m doing that focuses and drives me.

No, I don’t think I’ll ever tie myself to a chair, and McPhee only did that a few times anyway. But McPhee’s work habits are prodigious. He is known for extensively interviewing and meticulously researching and organizing his notes before he begins writing. Read his New Yorker piece or the introduction to The John McPhee Reader by William L. Howarth. You’ll be amazed.

That’s being a practitioner, and that’s where I want to be.

All of us have our own version of writer’s block. What’s keeping you from achieving your goals? Take the steps to overcome the obstacles in your life. You don’t have to sit in a room naked or smell rotten apples, but you do have to make the effort. You’ll be glad you did.

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Keep your head in the clouds and your feet on the ground

Meadow with flowers

Are you a dreamer or a doer? Hopefully you are a little of both.

Years ago, when I was working at a DC trade association, the CEO stopped by my office one night before heading out the door.

“Why do businesses fail?” he asked me.

I could think of many reasons, but I knew there must be one in particular that was on his mind.

“Because they can’t execute.”

Earlier in the day, we had been brainstorming a new project that would take a lot of staff time and resources, so I knew where he was headed. The upshot was that he was killing the project before we even had a chance to get it off the whiteboard.

As I drove home that night, I had mixed feelings. I was disappointed that we weren’t doing the project, but I was also relieved because I wasn’t sure we could actually pull it off.

When I was a kid, my parents used to say that my eyes were bigger than my stomach when I put more on my plate than I could eat.

There have certainly been times in my life when I’ve bitten off more than I could chew. Haven’t we all faced situations where we feel we can’t possibly get everything done that we’ve volunteered or been asked to do? Especially nowadays when everyone is working harder yet still expected to meet those elusive stretch goals.

I have a lot of admiration for visionary thinkers, but I have even more admiration for thinkers who can deliver on their promises. Few people are good at both dreaming and doing.

Teddy Roosevelt once said, “Be practical as well as generous in your ideals. Keep your eyes on the stars, but remember to keep your feet on the ground.”

That’s good advice. Along those same lines, Mike Robbins wrote a good blog post a few years ago about keeping your head in the clouds and your feet on the ground.

It starts with recognizing where you are in the cloud vs. ground spectrum. It’s tough balancing the practical with the visionary. My days are often filled with the humdrum stuff that goes into running a solo practice. Not to mention meeting client deadlines.

The big picture gets left in the weeds. How to expand the business, get new clients, maybe develop a new specialty area—it always seems to fall off my to-do list as I get busy.

Robbins says that we should allow ourselves to focus on our dreams. “Having our ‘head in the clouds’ is about giving ourselves permission to dream and dream big,” he says.

But we also have to take intentional and effective action. “One of the biggest challenges we encounter in our journey towards our dreams is either not taking effective action (because we don’t know what to do or we’re too scared to do it) or taking too much ineffective action (because we’re running around crazy or acting in an unconscious way),” he says.

According to Robbins, “When we allow ourselves to dream big (with our ‘head in the clouds’), how we keep our ‘feet on the ground’ is by coming up with intentional and appropriate actions to move forward with our goals, even if we’re scared and not sure how things will turn out.”

It’s also important to get support and feedback. As Robbins puts it, “[A]ll of us need people who can cheer for us, hold us accountable, and support us on our journey in an authentic and meaningful way. We can’t do it alone—well, at least not nearly as easily or effectively.”

Finally, he suggests not getting too stressed or uptight about meeting goals. “Having fun along the way ensures we keep things in perspective and enjoy the ride, regardless of the outcome.” When we’re able to both dream and execute with passion, intention and focus, “we create a sense of balance and peace that can allow us to have what we truly want in life.”

How about you? How are you balancing the “vision thing” with getting things done?

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The seven habits of highly effective enterprises

McKinsey & Company published a short article a couple of weeks ago that is long on leadership and organizational insight. “The seven habits of highly effective digital enterprises” by ’Tunde Olanrewaju, Kate Smaje and Paul Willmott is worth a read, with observations and examples about how companies are successfully transforming themselves in the digital age. What struck me is that nearly every one of the seven habits applies to all aspects of business, whether you’re digitally engaged or not.

In fact, I think if you just delete the word “digital” from the title, you’d have a good template for organizational success. So here are the seven habits. See how many of these you are doing.

  1. Be unreasonably aspirational. “Being ‘unreasonable’ is a way to jar an organization into seeing digital as a business that creates value, not as a channel that drives activities,” say the authors. Bean Samples The Ocean of StormsAs I considered the examples given—Burberry and Netflix—I couldn’t help but think of Jim Collins and Jerry Porras’ Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies. The companies that are able to envision a future are the ones that succeed. They aspire to become or create something that may not even exist or be achievable—at least not by current thinking. As the article notes, Netflix was a successful renter of DVDs, but it aspired to become a leader in a technology that was only in its infancy—streaming video. At the end of last year, NetFlix had 40 million streaming subscribers. Not bad for a bunch of dreamers.
  2. Acquire new capabilities. Here the authors deviate a bit from everything you always heard about hiring for attitude, not skills. But if you want digital transformation, you need people who have proven digital skills. This is the “acqui-hire” approach that you’ve seen tech giants like Apple, Google and Facebook adopt in recent years when they acquire small start-ups to fill in the gaps they have in their own talent pool. Of course, not everyone can go out there and buy a whole company just to get a few talented people. But I think McKinsey is right in saying that talent can be mighty important, especially in the early stages of transformation.
  3. “Ring fence” and cultivate talent. McKinsey found that the most successful digital transformations occur when companies fence off their digital groups from the rest of the organization, protecting them from “business as usual” and giving them free rein to innovate. fence“Digital talent must be nurtured differently, with its own working patterns, sandbox and tools,” McKinsey says. The question is, how long do you let the digital team operate as its own skunkworks? “To deliver in an omnichannel world, where customers expect seamless integration of digital and analog channels, seamless internal integration should be the end goal,” the authors suggest. In other words, in the beginning it makes sense to build a separate digital team and give them what they need, but eventually they need to be integrated into the organization. That’s not just a model for digital. Any new, important project can benefit from the same approach.
  4. Challenge everything. “Look at how everything is done,” says McKinsey, “including the products and services you offer and the market segments you address, and ask ‘Why?’ Assume there is an unknown start-up asking the exact same question as it plots to disrupt your business.” Apple is often cited as a transformational model, moving from computer maker to one of the largest distributors of music, not to mention reinventing the cell phone and the way we use mobile devices. After all, it was Steve Jobs who said that leaders are always deeply dissatisfied with the status quo, restless for change and impatient for progress. “Digital leaders examine all aspects of their business—both customer-facing and back-office systems and processes, up and down the supply chain—for digitally driven innovation,” McKinsey says.
  5. Be quick and data driven. “Rapid decision-making is critical in a dynamic digital environment,” the authors write. “Organizations need to move to a cycle of continuous delivery and improvement, School testadopting methods such as agile development and ‘live beta,’ supported by big data analytics, to increase the pace of innovation. Continuous improvement requires continuous experimentation, along with a process for quickly responding to bits of information.” Examples include companies like U.S. Express that collects data in real time from tens of thousands of sources and then uses business-intelligence tools to extract insights about its fleet operations. P&G is another example. It provides up-to-date sales data across brands, products and regions to more than 50,000 employees globally.
  6. Follow the money. “A digital transformation is more than just finding new revenue streams,” says McKinsey. “[I]t’s also about creating value by reducing the costs of doing business.” The authors say that while testing and experimentation is critical, “teams must quickly zero in on the digital investments that create the most value—and then double down.” Often, the authors report, great value is found in optimizing back-office functions. They give the example of Starbucks, where only a third of its active IT projects were focused on customers in 2013. One-third of its projects were devoted to improving efficiency and productivity, and another third focused on improving resilience and security.
  7. Be obsessed by the customer. No surprises here, but it certainly bears repeating: “A healthy obsession with improving the customer experience is the foundation of any digital transformation.” I would say that goes for any business transformation. Customer Service OperatorAs the authors note, “Rising customer expectations continue to push businesses to improve the customer experience across all channels. Excellence in one channel is no longer sufficient; customers expect the same frictionless experience in a retail store as they do when shopping online, and vice versa.” What’s key is the ability to learn from every customer interaction. Successful companies are obsessed with getting the experience right and using digital to fine-tune interactions. As the authors state, “This mind-set is what enables companies to go beyond what’s normal and into the extraordinary. If online retailer Zappos is out of stock on a product, it will help you find the item from a competitor. Little wonder that 75 percent of its orders come from repeat customers.”
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Is business dynamism on a permanent decline?

Last year I wrote a post (“Is America the best place on Earth for entrepreneurs?”) that looked at some worrisome trends suggesting a decline in U.S. entrepreneurship. This was based on data compiled by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) that ranks countries on startup rates and innovation.

Business dynamism - Brookings Institution

Graph showing decline in business dynamism from Brookings Institution.

Now comes a troublesome new study from the Brookings Institution by economists Ian Hathaway and Robert Litan that says more businesses are dying than being created in the U.S.

Hathaway and Litan analyzed business dynamism over a 33-year period (1978-2011) and concluded that dynamism is slowing down in all 50 states and nearly every metropolitan area, to the point where firm exits exceed firm entries.

As the two explained in their paper:

Business dynamism is the process by which firms continually are born, fail, expand, and contract, as some jobs are created, others are destroyed, and others still are turned over. Research has firmly established that this dynamic process is vital to productivity and sustained economic growth. Entrepreneurs play a critical role in this process, and in net job creation.

But recent research shows that dynamism is slowing down. Business churning and new firm formations have been on a persistent decline during the last few decades, and the pace of net job creation has been subdued. This decline has been documented across a broad range of sectors in the U.S. economy, even in high-tech.

While the reasons explaining this decline are still unknown, if it persists, it implies a continuation of slow growth for the indefinite future, unless for equally unknown reasons or by virtue of entrepreneurship enhancing policies (such as liberalized entry of high-skilled immigrants), these trends are reversed.

Many commentators were quick to insert their own explanations for the decline, such as increased government regulation, or complain about “Obamanomics.” But in an interesting follow-up to their study, Hathaway and Litan noted that the decline has been steady, spanning both Republican and Democratic administrations, and that there really is no clear explanation—yet—for what is happening.

Being self-employed, I take a greater interest in these things than I once did, and I have to wonder if sole proprietors are counted as firms in the research. That may have some bearing, especially in light of several other employment trends that are beginning to have an impact on our economy:

  • Last year, I also wrote about the rise of the freelance nation. According to Ford Motor Company’s “13 Trends for 2013,” there are now 42 million freelancers in the U.S. As Ford noted, “Today’s contract workers are lawyers, journalists, daycare workers, graphic artists, accountants, videographers…” Ford calls this trend “The Micro Skills DIY” and says, “Versatility, nimbleness and agility are necessities in today’s shifting economic climate, where staid manufacturing jobs have been replaced by fast-moving technological ones.”
  • I recently was doing research for a client white paper and was fascinated by another employment trend known as encore or second-act careers. Baby Boomers, in particular, are eschewing the normal retirement path and deciding to continue working, only they want to do something more meaningful the second time around. The MetLife Foundation says as many as 31 million people between the ages of 44 and 70 are looking for encore employment that combines meaningful work with social impact and continued income. Many of these encore careers involve starting a business or nonprofit.

It would seem to me that these two trends might counterbalance the slump in business dynamism that the Brookings study describes. However, it may be that something more structural is going on. Let’s hope dynamism is simply in a state of flux, in which case, we might see some improvement in the coming years.

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Just 30 minutes a day

Tennis shoes

Still Life of Tennis Shoes

Today I pushed myself further than ever before in my exercise regimen. I turned on the treadmill.

Actually, I’m getting better about exercising. I won’t go so far as to say that I like exercise, but we’re doing okay. Sure, we’ve had our differences over the years. There were times when I told exercise to get lost, but I always came crawling back. There were times when I was overly obsessed with exercise, but I got past that, too.

Now, it’s just a simple, steady relationship, more or less the equivalent of a heart-healthy routine of walking 30 minutes a day.

You joggers and marathon-runners are laughing, I bet. But there are lots of studies that show walking just 30 minutes a day (sounds like a TV commercial, I know) has huge physical and mental health benefits.

The health benefits alone are pretty amazing. You can increase your cardiovascular fitness, strengthen your bones, reduce body fat, improve blood pressure and boost endurance just by walking! Walking can also reduce your risk of developing heart disease, type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, and breast and colon cancer.

The American Heart Association says walking is “the simplest positive change you can make to effectively improve your heart health.” I believe it!

I need only look at my dad, who will turn 90 later this year, to see the benefits. Every morning, except Sundays, he gets up early and walks 2-3 miles with his walking club at Greenspring. They walk year-round. Even his bum knee hasn’t deterred him from his walking.

Now that’s inspiration!

But, wait, that’s not all, as they say on late-night TV. There are even more benefits to walking!

You feel better. Studies show that walking results in a better night’s sleep. It decreases stress, improves your memory and boosts your mood. It gets you out of your work routine. It helps you clear your head and focus.

Mason Currey, who wrote “Daily Rituals: How Artists Work,” discovered that many famous creative people had a habit of taking daily walks. A lot of composers took walks, including Beethoven, Mahler and Tchaikovsky.

I find that ideas for this blog pop into my head when I’m exercising, or maybe the solution to a problem I’ve been wrestling with will come to me. It’s great for boosting creativity.

Of course, what gets me are all of the bad things I eat. I never met a cookie, brownie or bag of chips that I didn’t like. So good exercise habits have to be supported by healthy eating habits and a good night’s rest. If you can get those three in balance, there’s a strong possibility that you could live as long as a . . . famous composer?

No, you really don’t want to live as long as a famous composer. Trust me, they had short lives. I’ve already outlived Beethoven, Mahler and Tchaikovsky.

Poor Tchaikovsky. Currey reports that the composer walked precisely two hours each day. Tchaikovsky feared that if he finished his walk just a few minutes early, a great misfortune would befall him. I guess he was right because he died at age 53. Some say it was from cholera, others say he killed himself. I say it’s because he should have walked just 30 minutes a day.

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Life goes on…and that’s a good thing

Meadow

Straight from Central Casting: A meadow suitable for running through with outstretched arms. (freerangestock.com)

Three months have gone by since I last posted here at The Wayward Journey. As the days and weeks passed, I imagined a great celebration in the blogosphere the day I finally pushed the “publish” button again.

The music would cue up, the sun would shine, and I would run through a golden meadow with outstretched arms.

The world’s greatest bloggers would all be there, cheering me on, giving me atta boys and high fives as I reached the end of the field. The music would crescendo to a rousing conclusion as I unfurled with great fanfare and beaming pride my New Post.

Bravo! Bravo!

Okay, cut. That’s a little too Hollywood, even for a dreamer like me. But I did anticipate that this first post in months would be special, something suitable for framing, as we used to say in the pre-digital days.

Friends and a few followers asked, “When will you blog again?”

“Soon,” I said, thinking that I would surely get something posted. After all, it’s not like we bloggers lack for material. Even the most mundane experience, in the hands of a resourceful writer, can become the subject of a brilliant homily.

And though I’ve had many experiences over these past few months that I could have blogged about, I did not get to them, obviously. I got busy, and The Wayward Journey went dark.

Oh, I’ve been writing all this time, that’s for sure. In February, March and April, I wrote like a madman on several big projects for Jay Morris Communications. After all, that’s what pays the bills. Like a horse that’s been ridden too long, I was all wrote out. After a full day of writing for clients, I would say to my blog, “Tomorrow, I’ll get to you tomorrow.” I was spent, so my blogging got put on hold.

Then weeks went by, and pretty soon when I visited The Wayward Journey, it was like looking at an old yearbook or walking through a graveyard. I began to wonder if the Journey was over. Had I said all that I had to say? Was this blog going the way of so many other blogs—launched with great enthusiasm, then left to languish in cyberspace like a spent rocket?

No, I had a hunch I’d be back because this is The Wayward Journey, with a capital W. But when those old creative juices finally began to stir, I decided that I didn’t want my first post back to be my usual fare—stories about everyday life that when examined from a different perspective yield new insights. Although, that does sound pretty good, doesn’t it?

Garden

I could be blogging about trimming bushes!

For example, on Saturday, I spent the day trimming bushes and trees. I’m sure I could give you 500 words on the importance of careful pruning, why it’s necessary to cut out those things in life that impede our growth so that we can be more fruitful. I could quote the Bible even, John 15:2: “He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.”

I wanted to write something more, though, something epic! Something so poignant, so pregnant with meaning, that readers would literally swoon. Babies would stop crying, politicians would stop bickering, warring countries would stop fighting. The stock market would explode with approval, and my retirement savings would mushroom overnight. For once, I could look at those annoying Internet ads—the ones that ask, “Do you have $500,000 to invest?”—and say, “Yes I do, and it’s all because of my blog!”

And so here you are, having read this far, and I’m guessing you’re not swooning, the stock market is still sputtering and babies are crying. C’est la vie, right?

Sometimes a blog about trimming bushes isn’t a bad thing. Because trimming bushes is real, and it needs to be done. Robert Frost once said, “In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life: it goes on.”

Yep, it does. We live through life, and we draw what we can from it. A moment savored, a photo shared, a lesson learned. We raise a glass and toast each other for making it through another day, another year, another birthday or anniversary.

I made it through these last three months, and I’m here. I can’t say that I have anything terribly profound to impart, but I’m glad to be back in the saddle.

I’d like to think there was someone out there nudging me a little, secretly giving me a kick in the butt to get back to it. We all need someone who believes in us when we’re tired and don’t think we can go any further. Even the Desperado in the Eagles song had someone looking after him. To those folks who knew that I would eventually come down from my fences, thanks!

So I’m back, at least for a little while. Long enough to catch up and have a Corona—or two. Long enough to see what you’ve got in the refrigerator, maybe stay for dinner.

Oh, and those chocolate-chip cookies you had on the counter, I only ate two. I swear.

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Why the Beatles were so good: They practiced!

Beatles in America

The Beatles arrive in America in 1964. From left to right: John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr. Photo from Library of Congress and Wikimedia Commons.

Last week, Washington celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ first concert in America with the tribute band Beatlemania Now taking the stage at the same venue (the Washington Coliseum) at the same time (8:31 p.m.) to play the same set (12 songs) that John, Paul, George and Ringo performed that snowy February night in 1964.

Okay, I admit it, I’m old enough that I probably could have gone to that first Beatles concert—if we had lived in DC, and IF my parents had let me. Would you believe tickets that night sold for $2 to $4? Plus, Jay & The Americans, The Righteous Brothers and Tommy Roe were the opening acts. Wow!

Even in Reynoldsburg, Ohio, where I grew up, the Beatles were an instant sensation. At Graham Road Elementary School, we were singing “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “She Loves You.” It was that “Yeah, yeah, yeah” part that got everybody giggling.

The Beatles were so talented that they made their special brand of pop music seem easy—and oh so listenable. But people forget that they worked hard perfecting their craft before bursting onto the scene with their appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”

If you’re familiar with Malcolm Gladwell’s book, “Outliers: The Story of Success,” you know that the Beatles are an example of the “10,000-hour rule.” Gladwell studied extremely successful people and concluded that it takes about 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery in a field. He based this in part on research done in Berlin in the early 1990s by a team of psychologists who studied the practice habits of top violinists. By age 20, elite violin players had averaged over 10,000 hours of practice, while less able performers had only 4,000 hours of practice.

John and Paul started playing together in 1957, almost seven years before their first concert in the U.S. More important, Gladwell explains, is the time they spent in the early 1960s in Hamburg, Germany, along with George and Ringo, playing in clubs night after night…after night.

“All told, they performed for 270 nights in just over a year and a half,” Gladwell writes. “By the time they had their first burst of success in 1964, in fact, they had performed live an estimated twelve hundred times.” As Gladwell points out, that’s more performances than most bands have in their entire career.

John Lennon explained that they couldn’t help but improve because they played eight hours a night. Do the math, and you can see that the Beatles had already logged 10,000 hours before coming to America.

What’s my point?

Well, it’s pretty simple: To get good at anything, whether it’s music, sports, art or business, you have to practice, really practice. Ten thousand hours is the equivalent of practicing eight hours a day, Monday through Friday, for five years straight. That’s like a full-time job.

To be sure, practice isn’t everything. Aptitude counts, too. But lots of practice seems to be the mark of the “outlier,” what separates the great from the not-so-great.

This explains why after six years of taking guitar lessons, I don’t play nearly as well as I’d like. I have to admit, days go by and I hardly pick it up. In a good week, I might practice three or four hours. Even if I practiced a full hour every single day, it would take me 27.4 years to hit that magical 10,000-hour mark.

Gee, just in time for the 75th anniversary of the Beatles!

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Please, no more faux customer service!

Restaurant customer service

Restaurant customer service can be delightful…or dreadful.

Have you ever been the recipient of faux customer service? It’s service with a saccharin smile—plastic, mechanical and insincere. Not genuine, not caring and certainly not the kind of service that makes you sit up and say, “Wow!”

I recently wrote about exceptional customer service that surprised and delighted—service that can have a positive and lasting impact on your brand. The kind of customer service I am writing about here, though, is deflating and harmful to brands. It rings hollow and leaves you feeling disappointed, even cheated.

We hear a lot about authentic leadership these days. “Genuine,” “heartfelt,” “mission-driven”—these are words associated with authentic leaders who connect with their employees and customers. So why can’t customer service have that same authentic connection?

It’s getting to the point where I cringe when I hear the following words because they’ve become so inauthentic:

“How are we doing today?”

“Are you finding everything okay?”

“Has everything been to your satisfaction?”

“How is your meal?”

Usually, when these words are uttered, you can bet they are not heartfelt or genuine. They are said without much feeling, and the person mouthing them moves on before you even have a chance to mouth back an equally empty response about everything being “just fine.”

I get particularly irked at restaurant servers, who interrupt your meal to ask you how the food is. It’s pretty evident they are going through the motions.

I was recently at a well-known pizza restaurant in Arlington for dinner. A young assistant manager stopped by our table to ask how the food was. I looked at our empty table and then looked up at her and said, “What food? We haven’t been served yet.”

The young lady blurted out an apology and then hurried off, never to be seen again. She could have easily recovered from her faux pas and delivered excellent customer service by simply saying, “I’m terribly sorry that you haven’t been served yet. I will go check on your order, and then I’ll be right back.”

Contrast that experience with one a few weeks later when I met a client for lunch at a restaurant in Springfield. Even though each of us had asked the hostess to be on the lookout for the other party, we somehow missed each other. My client got seated at a table upstairs while I waited downstairs in the lobby.

By the time we discovered each other, almost half an hour had gone by. We mentioned it to the hostess, and she said she would ask the manager to stop by our table. Sure enough, a manager did come by towards the end of our meal. She apologized for our inconvenience, but she also backed up her apology with action: She took one of the meals off our bill and gave us a gift card towards a future visit.

She did all of this without hesitation. Her demeanor was professional. No big fuss, but it was clear that she understood we had been inconvenienced. Both my client and I left feeling much better about the snafu.

Which restaurant am I most likely to go back to?

If you’re going to do customer service, then do it right. Make it authentic. Empower your people to wow your customers. In fact, make it clear that is what you expect. Anything less is simply faux customer service.

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