In sales, the first or last person up may have an advantage

Numbers 1-10

The order in which you present can make a big difference.

Is there an advantage to being the first or last person when giving a presentation, interviewing for a job or making a sales call? You might think that it wouldn’t make much difference, but it turns out that it does. Researchers call it the primacy and recency effect. We are more likely to recall the first or last things we hear, while the items in the middle are the least likely to be remembered.

I recently experienced this firsthand. I got estimates from four HVAC contractors to put a new heating and air-conditioning system in my house. The first contractor I spoke to was the one who got my business. The last contractor to give me an estimate came in second. The other two, the ones in the middle, fell off my radar screen.

To be fair, the first contractor’s price was the most competitive, and I liked the system he recommended best. He also was the most persistent in following up, so that made a difference, too. But the others were reputable companies, all were prompt in giving me estimates, and all had fairly similar recommendations.

It might be the primacy and recency effect plays a bigger role in our decision-making than we realize. Researchers at the Harvard and Wharton Business Schools found after analyzing 9,000 MBA interviews over 10 years that candidates interviewed earlier in the process received a more objective evaluation. Other career experts have said there is a recency bias because later candidates in the interview process are freshest in the minds of selection committees.

As early as the 1880s, a German psychologist named Hermann Ebbinghaus was doing memory research and discovered the serial position effect, which is the tendency to recall the first and last items in a series best, and the middle items the worst. When asked to recall a list of items in any order, people tend to begin with the end of the list (the most recent items). Among earlier items, the first few are remembered more frequently than the middle items.

Incidentally, it was Ebbinghaus who first noted the “forgetting curve,” which describes the exponential loss of information we have learned. The sharpest decline occurs in the first 20 minutes, and the decline is significant through the first hour. The curve levels off after 24 hours. Perhaps this explains why I can never remember names or passwords!

Ebbinghaus illusion

The Ebbinghaus illusion: Which orange circle do you think is larger? Actually, they are both the same size.

Ebbinghaus was a fascinating man, and I can’t resist mentioning another of his discoveries called the Ebbinghaus illusion. It’s an optical illusion that alters our perception of size. In the best-known version (pictured here), two circles of identical size are placed near each other but are surrounded by different-sized circles. The circle surrounded by the small circles appears larger, but, of course, it is not.

The upshot of Ebbinghaus’ research and later studies is that we should be aware of memory limitations whenever we are competing for someone’s time or business. I have to give that first HVAC contractor a lot of credit for asking me where I was in my decision-making process. When I told him that he was the first one that I had talked to, he wanted to know if I would be talking to others and when I would be making my decision. He then made a point to follow up during the week, so I would continue to keep him top-of-mind.

You can do the same if you are competing for someone’s business or being considered for a job. Ask how long the process will take. What are the decision steps along the way? Then come up with reasons to reach out to your potential client or boss. The most obvious is a thank-you note after the interview or meeting. You can follow up a little later with additional thoughts or questions you might have about the project or job. I also forward to potential clients articles that I think they might be interested in or ideas I have for future projects.

The primacy and recency effect also is at play in meetings, as this YouTube video by business coach Paul Archer demonstrates. We tend to remember the first things said at meetings and the very end of meetings. To run an effective meeting, it’s important to keep meetings brief, have an agenda, get to key items upfront and wrap up your meeting with a good summary.

So take advantage of the primacy and recency effect, and make the most of your beginnings and endings!

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‘Because you matter’

A small group I’m in has been reading Father Gregory Boyle’s Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion, which is based on Boyle’s 25-plus years of work with gang members in East Los Angeles. Boyle is the founder of Homeboy Industries, a nonprofit enterprise that provides jobs, training, counseling and hope to gang members who are trying to turn around their lives.

Tattoos on the Heart

Greg Boyle’s “Tattoos on the Heart” is chock-full of lessons.

In the next-to-last chapter, Boyle grapples with what constitutes “success” in his ministry. In the gritty Pico-Aliso area of LA where he works, gang shootings, poverty and pain are commonplace. Boyle wonders if he has made a difference by the standards of the business world. He can’t really point to a dramatic improvement in outcomes. After all, this is a community that is constantly upended by violence and death, and he has presided over the funerals of 168 murdered gang members. But as he amply demonstrates in his book, success is not always measured by results.

Sometimes success is just reaching out to another human being and reminding them that they matter.

Case in point: The other day, I found myself at George Mason Regional Library in Annandale, VA. I was between meetings and needed a place to check emails and do some work on my laptop. It was after school, and the place was humming with activity. Here and there, I saw kids being tutored. Right next to me, an older high school student was helping a younger one do his math homework.

A couple of tables away, an elderly woman sat in a wheelchair. Next to her was a young woman. From time to time, I could hear the older woman’s voice, which was firm and full of purpose. At one point, I heard her say to the young woman, “No one should have to endure that kind of hardship in their life.”

It became clear to me that the young woman has having some financial difficulties and was being counseled by the older woman. “You need not worry any more,” the older woman said. “I will help you. I will make sure your daughter has what she needs.” I heard her matter-of-fact instructions to the young woman to open a savings account for her daughter and that she would deposit money into the account.

At the end of their conversation, the older woman asked, “Do you know why I am doing this for you?” There was silence. “Can you guess?” Again, silence. Then came the clincher: “I am doing this for you because you matter. You matter.”

A few minutes later, I looked up and the two were gone. I had to wonder if the conversation even took place. It seemed so out of place for a library in affluent Fairfax County.

On the surface, two women from different backgrounds and different generations met at a public library. I suspect that they had very little in common, yet their lives intersected and they were both enriched. As Boyle notes in Tattoos on the Heart, success is when we see in others what they at first cannot see in themselves—and then we help them discover that they have value and their lives matter.

Boyle talks about breaking down the barriers of jurisdiction and building kinship. This can only happen when we’re willing to step out of our own world and see with new eyes. “Close both eyes; see with the other one,” he says. “Then, we are no longer saddled by the burden of our persistent judgments, our ceaseless withholding, our constant exclusion. Our sphere has widened, and we find ourselves, quite unexpectedly, in a new, expansive location, in a place of endless acceptance and infinite love.”

Now, that’s success.


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Do you have the rights to that photo you’re posting?

antique cameraWhen’s the last time you posted a photo to your Facebook page? If you’re like many Facebook users, it may have been just a few minutes ago.

It turns out we’re uploading images on social media at mind-boggling rates. A few years ago, Facebook revealed that its users were uploading 350 million photos per day!

Facebook users collectively have uploaded over 250 billion photos, an average of 217 photos per account. In 2014, Snapchat reported 800 million snaps per day and over 1 billion Snapchat “stories” (video and photos that last 24 hours).

That’s well over a billion images flying onto the Internet every day! And that doesn’t even count Instagram, Pinterest, Flickr, Twitter, LinkedIn and others.

Where do they all these photos come from? Most are pictures we take ourselves; but for companies and small business owners interested in creating a professional image on a budget, they are increasingly coming from stock photo sites. Stock photography has grown into a multi-billion dollar business with millions of low-cost, high quality images available for purchase or free downloading from hundreds of online, searchable databases.

In the early days of stock photography, editors, advertising agencies and designers had to manually sort through printed images to choose the photos they wanted. With the advent of digital photography, you could view photos on CDs; then, in the early 1990s, the first online, searchable stock photo libraries were introduced.

Nowadays, anyone can view screen after screen of downloadable images on just about any topic. But ease of use has become both a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing because it is so easy to grab digital images, and there are so many to choose from. It’s a curse because most people don’t understand the basics of photo usage and can get into trouble for using images they don’t own.

You might find hundreds of images you like from a simple Google image search, but that doesn’t mean you have a right to use them. Time and again, I see bloggers and small business owners using photography that isn’t theirs. “I got it off the Internet” seems to be the common refrain.

I spend a fair amount of time looking for images, sometimes for clients but often for this blog. For The Wayward Journey, I use at least one image per post. I generally don’t pay for those images, and you don’t have to either—if you follow the rules.

Keep in mind that original images are always the best. These are photos that you take yourself, so there is never any question about ownership and whether you have a right to use them (except as noted below under “permissions”). If you’re handy with a camera, I encourage you to take at least some of your own photographs.

The problem is that we’re not all good photographers, or we don’t always have the time to shoot images to meet the varied needs of our clients or blog. So the next best thing, if budget is a concern, is to find photos that we can use for free or for very little money.

You can Google “free stock photos” and find plenty of free photo sites. This article from Inc. has a list of the better-known ones to get you started. Photos you see on Wikipedia come from Wikimedia Commons, a good place to find historical photos such as pictures of famous people. Be prepared to spend quite a bit of time searching for photos on these free sites because the selection and quality are hit or miss.

Finding a good photo is only the first step. Then there is the bewildering task of understanding all of the rights and restrictions attached to photos. Here are some considerations:

  • Royalty-free. People are often confused by the terms “free” and “royalty-free.” A royalty-free image is not necessarily a free image. It simply means that once you’ve acquired it (perhaps paid a small licensing fee), you do not have to pay the owner any additional fees. However, you still have to follow the rules regarding its use!
  • Rights to the image. Most images, unless they are in the public domain, have restrictions on their use. Rarely will a photographer give up all rights to a photo. Always check to see if commercial use is allowed and under what circumstances. Most sites have a separate licensing/terms of agreement page. Take the time to read it!
  • Photo credits. Some photos must be credited, which usually means giving the name of the photographer and a link to the photo website. Check to see if attribution is required.
  • Permissions. You may need to get permission from the people who appear in a photo if it is for commercial use. Most stock photo houses have already secured these releases and will tell you that. Trademarked items and works of art are also protected and may require permission from the owner if they appear in the photo.

You may be thinking, what could possibly happen if I use a photo I found on Google in my blog? Actually, many stock photo companies have gotten quite aggressive in protecting their images. Some are notorious for going after small business people, even churches and nonprofits groups, if they discover their images are being used without permission. They may demand payments that are much higher than the value of the photos and threaten legal action. With so many avenues for acquiring photos legitimately, why take that chance?

Photos add a whole new dimension to your social media posts and can increase visits to your pages and website. Take the time to select good images and to understand the restrictions on their use.

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Does writing well still matter? Let me count the ways

Man taking notes on paperKudos to Deborah Brody of Deborah Brody Marketing Communications for launching a new feature called “On Writing.” Each month, she’s interviewing a communications professional on the craft of writing and then posting the interview on her blog. This month, I had the pleasure of discussing why writing well still matters in a digital/emoji world.

Below are some excerpts from my interview, but I suggest that you take the time to explore Deborah’s blog. She’s been blogging since 2008 and writes regularly on marketing communications. A writer and consultant with 20 years of public relations, advertising and marketing experience, her firm provides high-level writing and consulting to small and medium-sized businesses and nonprofits.

On writing: For Jay Morris, writing is a journey

We’ve reached the fourth edition of On Writing, and this time, I asked Jay Morris to share his insights. Jay, who runs his own PR consultancy, has an extensive writing background as a journalist and editor. He also writes one of my favorite blogs, The Wayward Journey.

1. What role does writing play in your work and how important a skill is it? 

Writing is by far the most important “deliverable” I provide my clients. My projects often begin with a strategic communications assessment, but I almost always end up writing something for the client. It could be web content, a blog post, a press release or a speech—some type of written communication that meets a need and tells the client’s story.

2. Does writing well still matter in a digital/text/emoji world? 

Writing does matter, and I think it matters even more in a world where there is a way too much mediocre content. If you want to distinguish yourself—if you really want to stand out—you need to be able to communicate effectively. Whether it’s a tweet or a long-form journal article, put some effort into writing it well. Readers will take notice and reward you for it.

3What’s the best advice you’ve received or would give on how to improve writing skills? 

An English professor once wrote on one of my papers, “You seem to understand the concepts, but your writing is unpracticed.” That was a bruise to my ego, but I took what he said to heart and worked hard at improving my writing. I practiced writing clearly and concisely. My advice to anyone who wants to write would be the same: practice, practice, practice! Just as musicians and athletes practice for hours each day, writers need to flex their creative muscles, too. Look for ways to stretch your skills, try new forms and experiment with your style and voice. Blogging and journaling are two excellent ways of doing that.

To read more, visit Deborah’s blog.

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Mountaintop experiences and valley duties

Men fishing near at the channel marker at Barnegat Inlet.

Men fishing near the channel marker at Barnegat Inlet.

This past weekend, I spent some time in New Jersey—first on Long Beach Island and then in the Pine Barrens. It was cloudy and rainy when we walked along the shore, one of those days where the sky and sea form a canvass of gray. Our hike through the Pine Barrens benefited from lots of sunshine and a crisp cool morning—optimum conditions for walking. Yet, along the trail, we hardly saw any evidence of wildlife. A lone bird (perhaps a pine warbler?) and a small green snake were the extent of our encounters. As I walked along the flat, sandy trail, noting that the vista of pines and occasional cedars never changed, I thought about how life isn’t always a series of grandiose panoramas or mountaintop experiences. In fact, most of the time, we are walking in the valley, where life seems fairly mundane and predictable. But it’s in those valley moments that we have time to meditate on our mountaintop experiences, put into practice what we’ve learned and examine life a little closer for clues of diversity and change.

The weekend before my trip to New Jersey, I was at Greensville Correctional Center for a Kairos 4-Day Weekend. Kairos is a prison ministry program that I’ve participated in since 2011. Kairos weekends are without a doubt mountaintop experiences. In the days following a Kairos weekend, most of us on the team are still on a spiritual high. It’s hard to go back to work and focus on routine matters. When you drink from a fire hose, the trickle of a water fountain seems entirely inadequate. You want more.

Walking through the Pine Barrens with my brother Barry and our friend Jim, I joked that the trees would soon thin out and we would find ourselves on the edge of a spectacular view. Of course, that did not happen. Each bend in the trail brought us closer to more pines, and more pines. I thought about one of the talks from our Kairos weekend called “Walking in God’s Grace.” The talk reminds us of the story of Jesus’ transfiguration on a mountaintop. While on the mountain, Jesus begins to shine with bright rays of light. Then the prophets Moses and Elijah appear next to him, and Jesus is called “son” by a voice in the sky. For Peter, James and John, who are with Jesus, it is the ultimate mountaintop experience. Peter is thinking, “I don’t want this to end,” so he volunteers to put up three shelters—one for Jesus, one for Moses and one for Elijah. But before Peter can do anything, the experience is over. Jesus has returned to normal and is leading them down the mountain, back to their everyday world.

As we tell the residents of Greensville, “A mountaintop experience prepares us for valley duty.” It’s not easy to walk in the valley, especially when that valley is a penitentiary and your time there might be measured in decades. Nor is it easy for those of us on the outside to return to our lives, which are filled with a multitude of obligations and little time for the things that we know from our mountaintop experience are important.

When I got home from Kairos and was going through the mail, I noticed a letter from Greensville. It was from one of the residents who sat at my table last October. I put it aside and thought, “I will read this when I’ve come down from my mountain.” Returning home from New Jersey, I was ready for the letter. After 25 years of incarceration, this man will be released in a few months. During his Kairos weekend, he shared his fears about starting anew. Over the last few months, we’ve seen a dramatic change for the better in his demeanor.

In his letter, he wrote, “I don’t fear going forward, I don’t dread going forward, I steadfastly look forward. Most of all, I’m not alone, and as long as I hold strong to Jesus and remain in the care of God, He won’t allow me to fail. Oh, I know it won’t be easy, but I’m alright with that now.”

The valley is where the real work is done. It’s the crucible that forges our souls and tests our resolve. I have no doubt my Kairos brother will persevere. He will walk through the valley and out of those gates with a smile on his face. And when I find myself down in the valley, in a really low place, I’ll return to his letter and reread it, a smile on my face, too.

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When’s the last time you used a map to get somewhere?

Map with model carBefore there was GPS, before there were navigation apps, there were maps. I’m talking about paper maps that you kept in your car’s glove compartment or stuffed behind the seat. You could get a pretty good map for free at a rest stop or buy one for a quarter at a gas station. Or you could join AAA and get all the maps you wanted, including TripTiks, which my parents relied on for years.

Maps seemed mostly a guy thing. Guys pored over them, plotting the best route. If a bunch of guys got together, they’d look at the map and brag about all the shortcuts they knew.

When I was a scout leader, all of the dads would gather around the hood of someone’s car, and we’d spread out the maps. First came the roadmaps, then a hand-drawn map of some remote campsite that was off the beaten path. “Not to scale” took on new meaning as we followed the map onto unmarked roads, wondering all the while, “Is this right? Surely, we should have seen the next turn by now.”

Maps were a guy’s excuse for not asking for directions. Better to drive 10 miles out of your way than to admit that you had no idea where you were. At some point, you’d get back on the map, right?

Now technology has eliminated our need to ask for directions. It also has reduced driving times and increased fuel efficiency, all good things. But I think it is has made us dumber about geography and less adventurous about trying new routes. If you plug your destination into a navigation system, you don’t really need to pay much attention to where you are going. You just let the GPS take you there.

Of course, navigation systems aren’t foolproof; you still need some common sense. For example, my car’s GPS doesn’t like Rock Creek Parkway. It doesn’t believe it exists, even though the parkway was completed in 1936.

Newer apps like Waze are good because they provide real-time information like traffic conditions, accidents and police activity, along with alternative routes and posted speed limits.

There are also a number of apps that can save you money on gas and reduce your fuel consumption. Kayla Matthews did a roundup a few months ago that’s worth looking at. Here are a few she mentioned in her post, “8 Unique Apps to Help You Save Gas Money”:

GasBuddy. I’ve had this free app for several years. It relies on users to find the cheapest gas prices, which are updated daily. You can search gas stations by zip code or let the app use your location.

AAA TripTik. You don’t have to be a member of AAA to use this app’s trip-planning features. Besides maps, the app lists nearest gas stations as well as nearby hotels, restaurants and pharmacies.

Gas Manager. This freemium app tracks gas usage, fuel economy and expenses. Tracking the first 10 fill-ups is free; then you have to pay $3.99 to unlock unlimited fill-up tracking.

By and large, I am happy to give up paper maps for smartphone apps. I remember too many occasions when I was driving blind and just praying I would get to my destination on time—like my best friend’s wedding or my first job interview after college. Google Maps would have been real nice back then.

As with anything in life, having a notion of where you’re going is important. That’s why I still keep those old-fashioned paper maps in my car. Without a roadmap, you may just find yourself in the middle of nowhere.

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10 demographic trends that are shaping our world

Globe with pushpinsDemographic trends have always fascinated me, not just as factoids to be used in a clever infographic, but as vital intelligence that can help us better understand consumers, target markets and engage customers.

A few weeks ago, the Pew Research Center published “10 demographic trends that are shaping the U.S. and the world,” essential reading for anyone seeking insight into how our world is changing.

Here’s a summary of those top 10 trends. I recommend viewing the full article, written by D’Vera Cohn, because it has some very good charts.

  1. Americans are more racially and ethnically diverse than in the past, and the U.S. is projected to be even more diverse in the coming decades. By 2055, the U.S. will not have a single racial or ethnic majority.

  2. Asia has replaced Latin America (including Mexico) as the biggest source of new immigrants to the U.S. In a reversal of one of the largest mass migrations in modern history, net migration flows from Mexico to the U.S. turned negative between 2009 and 2014, as more Mexicans went home than arrived in the U.S.

  3. America’s demographic changes are shifting the electorate—and American politics. The 2016 electorate will be the most diverse in U.S. history due to strong growth among Hispanic eligible voters, particularly U.S.-born youth.

  4. Millennials, young adults born after 1980, are the new generation to watch. They have likely surpassed Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964) as the largest U.S. generation and differ significantly from their elders in many ways. They are the most racially diverse generation in American history: 43% of Millennial adults are non-white, the highest share of any generation.

  5. Women’s role in the labor force and leadership positions has grown dramatically. The labor force participation rate for American women has risen steadily since the 1960s. In fact, mothers were the sole or primary breadwinner in a record 40% of all households with children in 2011.

  6. The American family is changing. After decades of declining marriage rates, the share of American adults who have never been married is at a historic high. Two-parent households are on the decline in the U.S., while divorce, remarriage and cohabitation are on the rise. About one-in-six American kids now live in a blended family. And the roles of mothers and fathers are converging, due in part to the rise of breadwinner moms.

  7. The share of Americans who live in middle class households is shrinking. The share of U.S. adults living in middle-income households fell to 50% in 2015, after more than four decades in which those households served as the nation’s economic majority.

  8. Christians are declining as a share of the U.S. population, and the number of U.S. adults who do not identify with any organized religion has grown. While the U.S. remains home to more Christians than any other country, the percentage of Americans identifying as Christian dropped from 78% in 2007 to 71% in 2014. By contrast, the religiously unaffiliated have surged seven percentage points in that time span to make up 23% of U.S. adults last year.

  9. The world’s religious makeup will look a lot different by 2050: Over the next four decades, Christians will remain the largest religious group, but Islam will grow faster than any other major religion, mostly because Muslims are younger and have more children than any other religious group globally.

  10. The world is aging. The demographic future for the U.S. and the world looks very different from the recent past. Growth from 1950 to 2010 was rapid — the global population nearly tripled, and the U.S. population doubled. However, population growth from 2010 to 2050 is projected to be significantly slower and is expected to tilt strongly to the oldest age groups, both globally and in the U.S.

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Is fear holding you back? Consider these three lessons

girl running from imaginary monster

Maybe it’s time you stopped running from your fears and faced up to them.

Napoleon Hill once said that fear is the single greatest obstacle to success. Yet, even with success, fear does not go away. Instead, it burrows into your subconscious in more subtle and insidious ways. You get comfortable, and you hardly notice your fears. But when comfort and safety are your refuge, how much risk are you willing to take?

Max Lucado, in his book Fearless, poses an interesting question: “Can the safety lover do anything great? Can the risk-averse accomplish noble deeds?” No, he says. “The worship of safety emasculates greatness.”

I have been meditating on some fears of my own that I need to overcome to get to the next level in my business. Identifying your fears is the first step to conquering them. Here are three that you might recognize in your life:

1) The fear of not being good enough

In the early 1980s, I wrote several freelance articles for City Paper, DC’s alternative newspaper. My day job was writing a Washington newsletter for the National Restaurant Association. I also freelanced for several other publications. One day after work, I met the editor of City Paper for a drink. I announced with some fanfare that I was thinking about going back to school to get a master’s degree in journalism and that I had set my sights on Columbia University, one of the top journalism schools in the country. I thought he would be excited, clap me on the back and say, “Jay, that’s a fabulous idea!” Instead, he looked me straight in the eye and said, “If you want to be a journalist, then be a journalist. You don’t need to go to back to school for that, you just need to do it.”

It occurred to me as I drove home that night that he was right. I had gotten it into my head that despite my success in writing, I needed more education. If I wanted to be “real” journalist, I would have to go back to school. I didn’t have the right credentials, and of course the solution was to go to Columbia. This is how fear gets inside our head, creates insecurity and convinces us that we’re not good enough. We don’t have the experience. We didn’t go to the right schools. The reality is that for most careers, unless they require technical knowledge, we just need to believe in ourselves and go for it.

I did not go to Columbia or pursue a career in journalism. I found out I really liked association work. In addition to writing the weekly newsletter, I contributed to the association’s magazine and wrote congressional testimony and speeches. I traveled with the president and did media relations. In short, I was doing it, and I thrived on it—in part because I abandoned my fear that I wasn’t following the right path to success.

2) The fear of not being perfect

When I was at the restaurant association, I met Jerry, who worked in the public information office at the Small Business Administration. Jerry wanted to start a trade association for franchisees. He invited me and several other association professionals to join him on the project. For the better part of a year, we met every few months to review Jerry’s ideas. He’d pass around research that he’d done on franchising, membership benefits the association might offer, ideas on how to structure the organization, etc. I was excited because I had never been part of a start-up. But as time went on, I became frustrated. Jerry never seemed to get past the development stage. With each meeting, there were more charts, more franchises he said we needed to study and more work that needed to be done before we could get started. Then Jerry got an offer to work in one of the SBA’s regional offices in California. He took the job, and that’s the last I heard of Jerry and his plan for a franchisee association.

Jerry’s story isn’t unique. I see that same caution and over-analysis in my work sometimes, too. The fear that things aren’t perfect keeps us from following through on our goals. Because the blog isn’t perfect, we don’t push the “publish” button. We linger longer on assignments than we should. We decide not to submit the proposal because it needs work.

The fear of not being perfect has a co-conspirator. It’s call procrastination. When we keep tinkering with a plan, wordsmithing a document or studying a problem, that’s the foot-dragging of procrastination. I’m not suggesting that we rush into new projects without doing our homework, but I do think that our fears can sabotage us before we even get to the starting block.

We tend to forget that nothing is perfect. You can’t prepare for every single contingency. At some point, you just have to take the plunge. Push the publish button, give the speech, perform the song. Chances are it is ready. Chances are it will be well received. Heck, it might even be great!

3) The fear of not being accepted

It was the summer of 2008, and I was riding in a church van to the airport, where we would board a plane and ultimately arrive in Girdwood, Alaska, for a 10-day mission trip. I had never been on a mission trip, and I didn’t know what to expect. And while we all attended the same church (Annandale United Methodist), I didn’t know the people on the trip that well, either. I was still new to the church and frankly wondering whether I had made the right decision to go. It had seemed like a pretty good idea when I signed up—see Alaska, do some good and get to know people. As I sat in the van listening to all of those voices happily chatting away, I suddenly felt alone.

For 29 years I was married, but now I was going through a divorce. My life had been turned upside down. This trip seemed to me a way to right it, a way to get my bearings. I was excited to be going, but I was also weighed down by the past. Just walking through the airport gave me the willies. It reminded me of other trips in better times when my wife would have been at my side.

But a funny thing happened on that Girdwood trip. A lot of my anxieties melted away. Looking back on it now, many of those fears were magnified by my state of mind. But that’s how fear gets the best of us. I’ve seen the fear of not being accepted—one of our most basic fears—grab a hold of otherwise successful people. The boss who wants to be liked by his employees, so he punts on tough decisions. The CEO who doesn’t want to rock the boat when it comes to board members. The politician who pays more attention to the polls than the real needs of the country.

Taming the fear of not being accepted starts with accepting who you are and recognizing that you have intrinsic worth. It begins with understanding that you have a purpose that’s bigger than you are. On a mission trip, that’s not hard. Those 10 days made a huge difference in my life. I often think that God threw me a life-preserver that week, and thankfully I was smart enough to grab it.

The trip opened my eyes to what my life could look like, and I saw that I would be okay. It renewed my passion for life. On the flight home, I added to those voices that were laughing and carrying on. As it turns out, Girdwood was the beginning of something very special. I now count the people on that trip as my best friends.

When we let go of our fears, we free ourselves to grow and serve others. Like the traveler in Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” we have a choice:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

It’s easy to take the beaten path, the one that leads to safety, comfort and fewer fears. But the road less traveled, the one that seems scary at first, that’s the one that leads to real success.

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Make talking to your customers a learning experience

Man talking on phoneOne of the things I like about my line of work is that I’m always learning something new. Over the past year, I’ve learned about cybersecurity, satellite technology, electric utilities and asset/liability management, to name a few of the topics I’ve written about for my clients. In each case, I got my information the old-fashioned way: I talked to people.

For example, I was recently asked to write an article on automatic circuit reclosers. What the heck is an automatic circuit recloser, you might ask? Well, I put that question to one of the engineers I interviewed. He gave an answer that was easy to understand and that will stick with me long after the article is published. “It’s like a ground fault interrupter (GFI) outlet in your house, only on a much larger scale,” he explained. “Reclosers on electric power lines work the same way, only they’re programmable and can reclose multiple times.” That explanation was better than any I could have looked up online or read in a book.

The interview is a tried and true means of getting information, and I highly recommend it. I write frequently about credit unions, and I can learn more from talking to a handful of credit union executives on the phone than from reading a pile of trade publications. It helps that, in my case, I’m often interviewing them for an article, but you can use the same technique to learn more about your clients’ business or your own industry.

It’s amazing the things you can pick up by simply talking to your customers or members—not just information about their company or area of expertise, but valuable intelligence that can help you improve your own business and better serve your customers.

I have a client whose business is designing and installing satellite communication systems. She and I are working on a new website for the company. Last week, we were on the phone comparing designs and features we liked on other websites. The conversation turned to what makes a good “About” page. This will be the third website we’ve built together, and I’m seeing an evolution in her thinking that I like. A previous site took a traditional approach to the About page: formal portraits of the company’s principals with standard bios. Now she was showing me examples of About pages that were much more creative, less formal and incorporated design elements with content to create a fresh take on what a company’s all about. It made me think about my own website (very traditional in that regard) and the fact that I haven’t updated it since I started my business in 2011. Hmm, I thought, maybe it’s time for me to make some changes, too.

Learning comes in many forms. You may not always have time to read a book, take a class or sign up for a seminar, but you can (or should) be able to find time to talk to your customers, members or stakeholders. Don’t ever discount the value of learning from them, whether it’s from a conversation, interview or a quick survey.

There’s also a business advantage to talking to your customers. Paul Schoemaker, writing in Inc., suggests that if you take the time to learn from your customers, you’ll know what they want even before they do. By seeing the world through their eyes, you’ll be able to anticipate their needs and beat the competition.

As Schoemaker says, “Try to listen with a third ear, as an anthropologist would, to what your customers are saying to you. If you can truly hear them, they’ll tell you all you need to know.”

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