Are you the Duck tape or Allen wrench of your organization?

Allen wrenches and duct tape

Duck tape and Allen wrenches both serve a purpose. Which one are you in your organization?

Many years ago, when I first moved to Washington and started working in communications, an older and wiser colleague gave me some sage advice: “Jay, you can be a generalist or a specialist, there is no set path to success in this business. You just need to decide which way you want to go, then pursue it.”

In my world, a specialist might be a web developer, a speechwriter, a graphic designer, a copywriter or a media relations specialist. A generalist is more likely to be an editor, manager, director, communications strategist or a PR consultant.

It’s been said that we specialize early in our careers, then, as we gain experience and perhaps move into management, we become generalists. That was the case in my career, starting as a reporter and editor, then public affairs director, vice president and ending up as a senior vice president.

Frankly, these last few years have been refreshing after many years in management. Now I work from home as a solo practitioner, and I’ve enjoyed rolling up my sleeves to produce client work that I once delegated to others.

My advice to those seeking a management slot is to keep up your specialist skills and stay current in your field. That expertise may prove invaluable. For example, I believe that my ability to demonstrate to my staff from time to time that I actually knew what I was talking about helped build trust and made me a better leader. It also gave me the insight to more accurately judge performance and determine staffing and resource needs.

Having a reputation for knowing how to get things done is also a wonderful insurance policy against being let go when times are tough. This is exactly what happened to my boss when an association we worked for cut its staff. He lost his management job, and I inherited what was left of the department. The scuttlebutt was that he was of less value in a downsized environment, and I was spared because of my skill set. I admired my boss a lot, so that is not how I would have liked it to have gone down, but at the time I was relieved to still have a job and be able to pay my mortgage.

There is danger, too, in being too specialized. As Vikram Mansharamani writes on the HBR Blog, “Corporations around the world have come to value expertise, and in so doing, have created a collection of individuals studying bark. There are many who have deeply studied its nooks, grooves, coloration and texture. Few have developed the understanding that the bark is merely the outermost layer of a tree. Fewer still understand the tree is embedded in a forest.”

Specialists often get too immersed in their own world, oblivious to what is happening in their organizations and unable to see the forest for the trees. Put another way, the generalist has a frame of reference that provides context and nuance for the content the specialist is expert in. It takes a generalist to connect the dots, bridge departments and create a vision for the future.

Still, I have found that every company has extraordinary specialists who are able rise above their insular domain, step out of their cubicles and make positive contributions for the betterment of the organization. They are the ones who volunteer to be on cross-functional teams, contribute at staff meetings and suggest new ways of solving old problems.

It is often specialists who do groundbreaking work, invent new things or make startling discoveries. When I was in school and played the trumpet, Miles Davis was one of my favorite musicians. You could say he was a specialist because he played the trumpet and continued to play it throughout his career. But later Davis wrote music and led bands. He pioneered the bebop and cool jazz sound and then pushed jazz into new territory with jazz fusion, influencing music and artists for generations to come.

If you are looking around your organization and wondering where you fit in and how you might contribute, think about your area of expertise and compare it to the items in a toolbox. When management needs a tool to fix a problem, who do they turn to? Do they reach for the Duck tape? Or search for an Allen wrench? Duck tape can fix many things, but only an Allen wrench can turn recessed hexagonal bolts.

If you’re the Allen wrench of your organization and hex bolts are crucial to its future, lucky you! But if hex bolts are a rarity and your talents are underutilized, perhaps it’s time to broaden your horizons. Duck tape comes in many colors, maybe there’s a roll, er role, that suits you.

 

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On rereading ‘Walden’ and the seasons of life

Walden and notes

My 85-cent copy of “Walden” and notes from 44 years ago.

Midway through my vacation last week, I opened Thoreau’s “Walden,” the same paperback edition I first read in ninth-grade English class. I still have all of my old notes. (How neat my handwriting was back then!)

I remember Mrs. Smith saying that “Walden” was a book that should be reread every summer. So every summer, I at least think about “Walden.”

One summer, I read it on the tiny screen of my personal digital assistant (remember those?). It was a Dell Axim, and you could synch it with your PC. This allowed me to transfer files, including eBooks. I liked the fact that I could highlight passages and bookmark pages. It reminded me of my first encounter with Thoreau and wanting to underline nearly every sentence.

Of course, the first time I read “Walden,” I was a teenager, so you might expect that I highlighted passages about how most men lead lives of quiet desperation and that you should step to the music that you hear, however measured or far away. Then, too, the early 1970s seemed tailor-made for Thoreau’s brand of transcendentalism, nature philosophy, self-reliance and individualism. Among other things, Thoreau was an environmentalist, abolitionist and a model for future acts of civil disobedience by Gandhi and Martin Luther King.

The Riverside Editions printing of “Walden,” first published in 1957, was edited by Sherman Paul, who wrote an introduction that I’m sure most high school students for generations found tedious and boring. I suspect most skipped over it and headed straight for the work itself. Not me. I have dutifully reread Sherman’s essay each time I pick up my dog-eared copy, battling yawns and the urge to flip through his fairly dense analysis.

It’s good preparation for what lies ahead, I tell myself. With each reintroduction to “Walden,” I marvel at Thoreau’s audacious experiment. I think about him actually living in a hut in the woods for two years. Was it really out of principle? Was he worn down from all his efforts at teaching and publishing? Was he in mourning for his brother’s death? Was he tired of making pencils (yes, he did work for a while in a pencil factory)? Or was he just a weird guy? There is something both heroic and sad about a man in his prime living alone, planting beans and writing poetry.

In my latest excursion, I am reminded by Paul that Thoreau’s book uses the seasons as its literary framework. The chapters correspond to the seasons, mirroring Thoreau’s time at the pond and his spiritual growth. The spring is a time of rebirth when Thoreau is at his most exuberant and freshest, followed by the close living and natural beauty of summer, the gathering of fall and the solitude and turning inward of winter.

It’s been over four decades since I first read “Walden.” I am entering the fall of my life, I guess, and some of the passages that excited me in the spring of my youth no longer move me like they once did. Now is the time for my gathering and reflection.

The good thing about “Walden,” and perhaps why Mrs. Smith told us we should reread it throughout our lives, is that its predominant theme is renewal. “Walden” reminds us with each reading why we began our own journeys, how we found our own place in the woods, and that each season has its time, its own lessons to teach. Even in the dead of winter, life goes on at the pond. Spring is our eternal hope, the longing we hold onto during the dark, cold night. “Only that day dawns to which we are awake,” Thoreau says. “There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning-star.”

In his final chapter, “Conclusion,” Thoreau writes, “I learned this at least, by my experiment; that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.”

This time when I revisit “Walden,” I will look for new clues about where I am now, how far I have come and where I am headed. There is still time to think about new vistas, new horizons and new dreams.

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‘Attraching’ and other portmanteau words

Humpty Dumpty and Alice

Humpty Dumpty explains portmanteau words to Alice in “Through the Looking-Glass.” Lewis Carroll is credited with first using “portmanteau” to describe blended words.

I’m a big fan of portmanteau words. These made-up words combine elements of two existing words to form a new one with a blended meaning. You might call them verbal mash-ups.

A portmanteau is a trunk or suitcase that opens into two equal parts, one side to carry folded clothes and the other to carry garments on hangers—an apt simile for these linguistic amalgamations. I could say meld, which itself is a portmanteau of melt and weld.

As Humpty Dumpty explains in Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking-Glass” (when Alice asks him about those strange words in the nonsense poem “Jabberwocky”), “You see, it’s like a portmanteau—there are two meanings packed up into one word.”

Carroll coined quite a few whimsical portmanteaus such as mimsy (flimsy + miserable), slithy (lithe + slimy), galumph (gallop + triumph) and chortle (chuckle + snort).

Many neologisms that began as portmanteaus have become accepted and commonly used words in our lexicon. Among them:

  • smog (smoke + fog)
  • brunch (breakfast + lunch)
  • advertorial (advertising + editorial)
  • motel (motor + hotel)
  • jazzercise (jazz + exercise)
  • infomercial (information + commercial)
  • infotainment (information + entertainment)
  • pixel (picture + element)
  • guestimate (guess + estimate)
  • webinar (web + seminar)
  • tween (teen + between)
  • smash (smack + mash)
  • spork (spoon + fork)
  • Eurasia (Europe + Asia)
  • stagflation (stagnant + inflation)
  • bromance (brother + romance)
  • pulsar (pulsating + star)

And so for a long time now, I have been in hot pursuit of a new portmanteau that I can call my own. Just when I think I have coined a new one, I discover from a Google search that someone else has thought of it before me. But, now, I think I have one:

Attrach (attract + attach).

Ingenious, don’t you think?

It’s the dream of every marketer to attrach new customers. It’s not enough to simply attract customers; we want them to attach to our brand and never let go. We long for that elusive stickiness that keeps them loyal to our products purchase after purchase. Attract + attach = attrach.

Attrach can also be used to describe relationships. We might say that someone is attrached to another person. They’re not just attracted. There is an instantaneous connection, an immediate bonding or pairing. It’s the Super Glue of relationships.

Attraching conflates into one action or result several traditionally separate steps that occur in the buying process or in a relationship. In marketing literature, we often see the steps to a purchasing decision defined as 1) awareness or interest, 2) research 3) evaluation, 4) decision-making,  5) purchase and 6) post-purchase. But why bother with this orderly process when you can just attrach your customers in one fell swoop!

I’m hoping attraching catches on. I see no reason why it shouldn’t.

Then again, some portmanteaus never gain acceptance. For example, did you know that in the 1890s the word blunch was a portmanteau for breakfast and lunch? Hmm.

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‘Blend their sweet music to my ear’

Trumpet

Trumpet was the first instrument I learned to play. Now I’m trying my hand at guitar.

Just before Thanksgiving, I had my last guitar lesson at the Music & Arts store in Springfield, ending a six-and-a-half-year run that had been frustrating, delightful and inspiring.

My teacher Matt taught me many things during the time we were together. I mastered chords, learned music theory, picked my way through songs and, along the way, gained a deeper appreciation for the guitar, which dates back to classical times and is an immensely rich but difficult instrument (for me) to play.

In the spring of 2008, I didn’t know a thing about the guitar. I just wanted to learn how to play. More than anything, I wanted to be able to create music. My music. In the beginning, my music consisted of playing a G and a D chord. Funny thing is, that is the basis of many songs. Add an A minor, and you’ve got the chords to Bob Dylan’s “Knocking on Heaven’s Door,” one of my favorite songs.

But mastering the guitar—as with anything new—requires more than a weekly half-hour lesson. I needed to practice and learn some things on my own. In the beginning, I embraced the challenge with gusto. However, my zeal began to taper off, and I found myself less inclined to pick up the guitar.

It got to the point where my weekly lessons had become a pleasant diversion, but I wasn’t really putting in the effort anymore. I realized that lessons alone would not get me to the next level. I needed to work on some things myself. That’s when I pulled the plug on my weekly excursions to Music & Arts.

This past Sunday, I had the good fortune of seeing musical ability at all levels at Annandale UMC’s annual talent show. From kids who are just learning to play instruments to young adults who are already accomplished singers and musicians, we were treated to a rich display of talent and skill.

One high school student casually announced, “I play the guitar,” and then proceeded to amaze us with a virtuoso performance. If I had a tenth of his talent, I thought…

While I will never grace a stage or bowl over anyone with my ability, I do continue to play the guitar. I haven’t relegated it to the closet just yet. Watching those young people Sunday reminded me of when I struggled to play the trumpet in elementary and junior high school. I know that practice and persistence can pay off because by the time I was a senior, I was first chair trumpet in the Woodson High School Symphonic Band.

If you have never taken up an instrument, I highly recommend it. Study after study shows the intellectual, emotional and health benefits of playing and listening to music. It’s a proven fact that music can reduce stress, even lower your heart rate.

For me, playing the guitar is therapy, wonder and exercise wrapped up in one beautifully fashioned piece of wood and six stretched, metal strings.

So I salute the talented young people at AUMC. May they keep inspiring old guys like me to practice and stay young.

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Content marketing, Star Wars and customer service

Star Wars logo

Star Wars logo from Wikimedia Commons.

If you want to see content marketing in action, the Microsoft Dynamics Blog is a pretty good example. I spend a lot of time on the Microsoft Dynamics and Azure websites for one of my clients. On the Dynamics site, they are always loading fresh content on CRM, social listening and ERP. And they do a pretty good job of keeping it informative, lively and not too sales-y.

Good content marketing not only stays on topic but also ties into the calendar, current events and popular culture. So recent Dynamics postings have given a nod to “Star Wars” (May the Fourth be With You!) and Mother’s Day.

And speaking of “Star Wars,” Tricia Morris (no relation) gives some great lessons on customer service from Yoda in her “7 Customer Service Lessons From a Jedi Master.” Here are four from her blog that have application across any enterprise and are frankly good words of advice for all aspects of life:

“Do or do not, there is no try.”
Entrepreneur magazine highlighted some of the phrases customers are most happy to hear and none of them include the word “try.” Instead, customers want to hear: I can solve that problem; I will find out; I will take responsibility; I will keep you updated, and I will deliver on time. Do or do not, there is no try.

“Help you I can, yes.”
Never send the customer somewhere else or tell them to call back at another time. Thank the customer for giving you the opportunity to address the matter, and to the best of your ability, address it then and there for much-appreciated first contact resolution. “Help you I can, yes.”

“You must unlearn what you have learned.”
No matter how much experience we have accumulated, there are always new or different things we can learn from experts, peers, mentors and our customers to enhance, adjust and revolutionize the customer experience. Keep an open mind and be open to continued change and learning.

Luke: “I do not believe it.” Yoda: “That is why you fail.”
Many a company can say or write that customer service is important to them, but if there is no real belief behind customer service’s power to change an organization for the better, the proverbial ship will never rise out of the stagnant complacency and disaffection holding it down.

Create a customer service culture, you must, filled with true believers. May the Force be with you…

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How to make better to-do lists and get things done

Man with clipboard

How effective are you at making to-do lists and then getting those things done? Photo from freerangestock.com.

Are you a list maker? I make lists all the time—in notebooks, on scratch pads, on the back of envelopes, on my iPhone, in Notes on my computer or just in my head. I keep a running list of topics for this blog, work deadlines, business ideas, volunteer commitments and personal projects.

At least I’m consistent about making lists, but I’m not very consistent about accomplishing the things on my list. The old adage, “plan your work, work your plan,” is a good one, but the “work your plan” part is where I most often fall short.

Here are some things that I’ve discovered about my work habits that I know I need to improve. You may be in the same boat.

Attach deadlines to your to-do items. It’s not enough to simply list the items you’d like to get done. Write down when each one needs to be completed. Yes, I know, that sounds an awful lot like planning. But unless you attach a deadline, you’re not going to get it done.

Prioritize your lists. Your to-do list shouldn’t be like a grocery list, where all of the items have an equal chance of getting into your shopping cart. Most of the items on your to-do list can be grouped into categories based on relative importance or how much time you have to get them done. Create a system where high-priority items rise to the top of your list.

Tackle the toughest items when you are freshest. Time-management gurus will tell you to double down on your hardest tasks first thing in the morning when the day is young and you’ve got plenty of energy. I say identify those times in your day where you can knock out tasks uninterrupted for about two hours and your energy level is fairly high. It may not be first thing in the morning for you; perhaps it is late afternoon before you leave the office. Determine an optimum time and then use it judiciously to complete the big projects on your list.

Review your lists and cross off items that have been neglected. At the end of the day, and then at the end of the week, look over your list. If an item keeps getting pushed to the bottom and stays there, maybe it needs to come off. Either get it done or move on. Purge your lists.

Think in longer timeframes. Stephen Covey always urged that we take the long view in creating task lists and goals, hence the weekly planner. Let’s face it, there are days when we hardly make a dent in our to-do list. Meetings, family emergencies, unexpected assignments—they all conspire to pull us away from what we had hoped to accomplish for the day. Rather than obsessing over it, consider that you still have until the end of the week to finish the major items on your list.

Budget your time. My biggest downfalls are distractions and devoting too much time to low-priority tasks that might best be left to others. Pay attention to how you are spending your day. Are you constantly on Facebook and other social media? Do you get sucked into idle conversation with friends or colleagues? Do you end up in long meetings that have no clear purpose? Do you find yourself problem-solving for people who are perfectly capable of finding solutions on their own? Learn to focus and put some limits on your availability during your optimum periods of personal production. Then get a few items off your to-do list.

Use a system that works for you. Some carry 3×5 note cards in their pocket. Others have massive binders with fancy day planners. Lately, I’ve been using my iPhone and saving my lists to the cloud. That way I can access them on my laptop and desktop computers. Try a few systems, and see which one is best for you.

What are some strategies you use to stay on track with your to-do lists?

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Managing risk, like change, is a process: 10 tips to follow

Enterprise Risk ManagementAn article I recently wrote on enterprise risk management (ERM) is the cover story in the current issue of The Federal Credit Union magazine. While ERM is a topic that probably doesn’t have much appeal beyond financial services, I think much of what I gleaned from the experts I spoke to applies not just to risk but to change management as well.

ERM is first and foremost a process that everyone in the enterprise must embrace, from top to bottom. It’s all about creating a risk culture that supports and aligns with the organization’s mission.

In reviewing the 10 tips I compiled for a sidebar, I can’t help but think most of these apply to any organization that’s attempting to change its culture. Here are those tips (wherever you see the word ERM, just think change!):

  1. Walk before you run. “Appropriately set expectations,” advises Andy Vanderhoff, CEO of Quantivate. “ERM is a journey that takes quite a few years. Take steps slowly and surely to get there.”
  2. Don’t shove it down people’s throats. “ERM doesn’t mean that you throw away everything that’s already been done,” says Vanderhoff. “Build on the effective risk culture that got you to this point. Don’t dismiss it.”
  3. Start at the top. “ERM may get assigned to a midlevel management person,” says Jeff Owen of the Rochdale Group, “but it needs to start with the CEO and board. They should set the tone and embed the ERM culture across the institution.”
  4. Give everyone a voice. “IT, business continuity, information security — these are functions that may feel like they don’t have a very big voice in the organization,” says Vanderhoff. “Make sure their voices get heard.”
  5. Get the right people on board. “You want people on your committee who can be allies of ERM,” Vanderhoff says. “Pick people who will help you create and support the ERM culture, not resist it.”
  6. Leverage the work you’ve already done. “You don’t need to reinvent the wheel,” Vanderhoff says. “You may already have an internal audit function and a compliance department. Leverage and integrate those to drive the process.”
  7. Think through your data collection needs. “The last thing you want is another data silo,” cautions Vanderhoff. “There should be a valid business driver behind the data you collect.”
  8. Get the process down before you automate. “Process precedes automation,” Vanderhoff states. “If you’re looking for software, ask in-depth questions about what kind of process is included.”
  9. It’s not a one-time thing. “ERM isn’t a once-a-quarter, once-a-year thing,” notes Department of Labor Federal Credit Union CEO Joan Moran. “It’s something that you should be doing all the time.”
  10. Learn as you go. “Don’t be afraid of the process,” suggests Margie Johnson of SAC Federal Credit Union. “It’s a work in progress, and we’re always learning.” Adds Vanderhoff, “With ERM, you want to enjoy the journey, not just the destination.”
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Stand and deliver: how to give impromptu remarks like a pro

Mark Twain

“It usually takes me more than three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech.” – Mark Twain

You’re at a meeting, a retirement party, an awards banquet, a birthday celebration, a wedding, a funeral—any place where people are gathered. Suddenly you hear your name called. Then the dreaded, “Can you say a few words…”

You’re not prepared. You don’t know what to say. But that doesn’t matter because now all eyes are on you.

Giving impromptu remarks is as old as the art of speaking, so why do these moments catch us by surprise? Why do we stumble and falter when we should be hitting them out of the park? After all, it’s only a few words.

If you’re like me, you generally fall back on familiar themes, not really rising to the occasion or shining, just hopeful that you don’t sound too lame—and thankful when it’s over.

It’s in our nature to be anxious about public speaking. It’s part of that fight-or-flight response that’s hardwired into our genes. Our mind freezes up; we become tongue-tied; we feel like all of the oxygen has been sucked out of the room. It’s no wonder the fear of speaking in public is the number one fear, more terrifying than snakes, spiders, heights or death. There’s even a term for it: glossophobia.

Nervousness about speaking may be natural, but that doesn’t get you off the hook. You still have to stand and deliver. Here are some tips for turning those fears around and making the most of the times when you are called upon to speak extempore:

  • Give yourself some credit. There’s a reason why you’ve been asked to say a few words. You’re the subject expert, the trusted friend, the boss. You have a track record of providing insight, offering support or giving encouragement. So give yourself a little credit. You can do this.
  • Someone has to do it. There are times when we simply need to step up and say something. Think of these off-the-cuff moments as opportunities to lead, motivate or teach, to reassure or comfort, to acknowledge, to say thank you or express joy. How you handle these situations can have a huge impact on your reputation as a leader, the relationship you have with colleagues or even the future of an organization. Don’t shirk your responsibility. Step up and own it.
  • Follow a formula. Your remarks may be off the cuff, but that doesn’t mean they have to be disorganized. Good prepared speeches follow certain rules, and so do impromptu remarks. While you don’t have the luxury of developing your points or rehearsing, you can follow a logical format. Consider these strategies:
    • Tell a story. Storytelling is one of the best ways to connect with an audience. Even if you have just have two minutes, you can still recount the first time you met someone or give an interesting anecdote from your career that is germane to the topic.
    • Answer the 5 Ws. Answering the classic who, what, where, when and why is a great way to succinctly convey information, especially if you are called upon to speak at a meeting.
    • Give pros and cons. There are times when you may find it useful to summarize the issue, give the pros and the cons, and then suggest a conclusion.
    • Use Q&A. Asking a question and then answering it is another approach you might try. You may also be able to get your audience to ask you questions.
    • Follow P.R.E.P. Used by Toastmasters, Point, Reason, Example, Point may be one of the easiest ways of organizing your thoughts. Make your main point, give the reason(s) for stating this point, back it up with an example or two, then conclude by reiterating your point. For more ideas, see this how-to from Toastmasters.
  • Breathe. Pause and take a few deep breaths. Stand up if it’s appropriate. Standing gives you more power and helps you project your voice if you are soft-spoken. Collect your thoughts and then consider which formula you will use to deliver your remarks.
  • Say what needs to be said and no more. No one asked you to give a speech. While you may be tempted to go on about your topic, remember it’s just a few words! Try to limit yourself to just one main point.
  • Be prepared. As the old saying goes, “To be forewarned is to be forearmed.” If you think you might be called on to say something, be ready. I remember being asked to speak at a funeral just as the service started. The family had said they didn’t want any speakers, but they changed their mind at the last minute. Luckily, I had jotted down some ideas beforehand—just in case. As a result, I was able to organize my thoughts and deliver a much better tribute than if I had not prepared ahead of time.
  • Practice. There is really only one way to reduce your fear of public speaking and become better at it, and that—ironically—is to do more of it. If you want to improve your delivery, boost your confidence and chase away those butterflies, consider volunteering to speak. Ask your boss if you can present at the next staff meeting. Try your hand at Toastmasters. The more you do it, the more comfortable you’ll feel giving impromptu remarks.
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‘The blissful cloud of summer-indolence’

John Keats

John Keats in 1819, the year he wrote “Ode on Indolence.”

The other day, when I should have been working, I picked up a paperback that had been lying around the house—Stieg Larsson’s “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” Normally, I don’t give much credence to book blurbs, but I have to say the words “utterly engrossing,” “mesmerizing,” “addictive” and “compelling” held true for this page-turner.

All morning, it was a game of cat and mouse. I’d read a few pages of Larsson; then I’d get back to work. By mid-afternoon, I was hooked, and the rest of the day was irretrievably lost to the girl with the tattoo.

I suppose that once in a while it’s okay to take a mental health day. But it raises questions, especially for those of us who are self-employed or run our own business. How much downtime do we allow ourselves? How often do we hang up a “gone fishing” sign and knock off early?

Last year, I worked nearly every day. I took off one day in June and a few days around Christmas. This year, I am trying to be more balanced. I took off a week in January, and I have another week of vacation planned next month. I’m also trying to set aside time each day to relax and think.

What’s that, you say? Slacker?

Actually, a lot of artists and psychologists will tell you that a little laziness, daydreaming or just goofing off are good for creative thinking. In describing her writing routine, Joyce Carol Oates once said, “I have always spent most of my time staring out the window, noting what is there, daydreaming or brooding.”

I prefer the word indolence. Indolence has its origin in the Latin “indolentia,” meaning freedom from pain. It’s a neutral state in which neither pain nor pleasure is felt, hence its association with idleness and laziness. So if the curse of our human condition is pain and toil and suffering (and busyness), you might say that indolence is its reprieve.

Steinbeck quote

I don’t regard indolence as a character defect—as was once thought—or the moral equivalent of sloth, one of those seven deadly sins we’re supposed to avoid at all cost. No, I view indolence more charitably—not a virtue but not necessarily bad, either. As Steinbeck says of laziness, it’s a state that’s conducive to contemplation. Without it, there can be no balance in our lives.

The English Romantic poet John Keats wrote his “Ode on Indolence” in the spring of 1819. It’s a mediocre poem compared to “Ode to a Grecian Urn” and “Ode to a Mockingbird,” which he finished the same year. Yet, Keats told a friend, “the thing I have most enjoyed this year is writing an ode to Indolence.”

In a letter to his brother George, Keats said of indolence, “In this state…the fibres of the brain are relaxed in common with the rest of the body, and to such a happy degree that pleasure has no show of enticement and pain no unbearable frown…This is the only happiness, and is a rare instance of advantage in the body overpowering the Mind.”

Indolence, then, is that sweet spot where the cares of this world melt away, if only temporarily. Indolence must have tugged at Keats because he had a lot to worry about in his short life. He had given up studying to become a surgeon so that he could devote his life to poetry, a decision he brooded over because he knew he would never have any money. His father had died when Keats was just eight. His mother died six years later of consumption, a disease that would take away his brother Tom and cut short Keats’ life at the age of 25.

The epigraph for the poem, “They toil not, neither do they spin,” comes from Matthew 6:28, where “they” refers to the lilies of the field. The verse is part of Jesus’ admonition not to worry about your life, what you will eat or drink, or what you will wear. Look at the birds of the air, Jesus says; they don’t sow or reap, and yet God feeds them. Or take the lilies. They don’t labor or spin, yet they are dressed in splendor.

It’s a message that Keats would have appreciated. Giving up the rigors of a medical career to devote his life to writing enabled him to become one of England’s greatest poets. The irony is that he would never know success in his life, nor was he ever made aware of a sizable inheritance that would have made his life much easier.

Needless to say, whenever we strike out on our own, we have our share of doubts and setbacks—both imagined and real. Brief periods of indolence are to be expected, perhaps even prescribed. They provide a respite from worry and stress, give us time to rejuvenate, and prepare us for bursts of creativity and inspiration.

So it’s okay to listen to a nightingale, lose yourself in a novel, walk along the beach or simply delight in “the blissful cloud of summer-indolence.”

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