I didn’t jump.

I remember like it was yesterday.

In 2007 I was MatLab coding in the 5th floor computer lab of Tulane’s bio-engineering building just like every other student in my program. It was a near meditative zone of whirring CPUs and click clacking of keyboards with the occasional half-hearted joke and stifled laughter. Then my phone buzzed and I stopped breathing. Panic came at me like a freight train. I was tied to the tracks, paralyzed by fear and expecting the worst.

I practically lived in this building for four years.

Caller ID said it was my mom. One small breath of relief. One notch down on the panic scale. I walked out of the computer lab into the hallway. Always afraid to answer but more afraid not to, I picked up the phone. She spoke. Another notch down on the panic scale. It was really her. At least, what was left of her. Hopeless, depressed, beaten down, but alive. I still had a mother, in there somewhere.

“Is everyone okay?” I asked the same question first every time. “As good as they can be.” It was all I needed to hear. The panic was temporarily replaced by numbness. I felt nothing as she shared the latest stories. She talked about the fighting. Nonstop fighting. My thoughts jumped to the next time the phone would ring. Or the time after that. Or after that.

Would it still be her calling or would it be someone else relaying bad news? Would I still have a family? Would they turn into a statistic? He terrorized them in person. Through them, he terrorized me from afar. Why had I gone so far away to school? Why didn’t I do something about it when I was still there? Why couldn’t I stop this from happening?

I hated the feeling of being helpless, hopeless, constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop. I wanted it all to be over. From my spot in the hall I could see outside to the back balcony. I walked up to the door and stood with my head pressed against the glass while she talked. For a minute while I stood there, I wondered what it would be like to fall. One quick jump and then I’d fall freely, quickly, into the darkness, into non-feeling.

Then I thought about my beautiful younger sisters and my feisty three year old nephew. They were living through his insults and threats every day and they were strong. I could, I had to be a good example of life after him.

My nephew and sister, Christmas 2006

The next day I went to Tulane’s ERC and met with a counselor. I explained I was there because my mom and stepdad were getting a divorce. Her first reaction was to ask if I was I worried I would miss him. After gagging a little, I believe I said, “No, I won’t miss him. She should have done this years ago. I’m worried he’s going to snap and kill them all.”

After her initial shock, I explained his escalating verbal abuse, recently diagnosed borderline personality disorder, and weekly trips to the shooting range to maintain his federally-trained sharpshooter status. After a few weeks of my visits I think she was almost as scared for them as I was.

Her suggestion was to cope the way I always had before, through my “flight to education.” I got the best grades of my undergraduate career during my senior year when I was simultaneously taking 18 credit hours, writing a thesis, and working over 30 hours a week. I saw my counselor once a week for over 15 months.

During the weekend of my Tulane graduation, he finally moved out of my mom’s house. Talk about breathing a big sigh of relief. My family was here in New Orleans to celebrate with me, but it wasn’t just me we were celebrating. We made it through that year together.

Me and my oldest nephew during the weekend of my Tulane graduation.

It took a while, but over time I gradually stopped having minor panic attacks when one of them called. Our family continues to grow and although drama is inevitable amongst so many bull-headed women, we’re as close as we’ve ever been.

My mom is by far one of the strongest, smartest, hardest working, and most resilient women I know. Without her example I wouldn’t be half the person I am today. Speaking of today– Happy Birthday, Mom. I love you and I’m proud to be your daughter.

Me & Momma in Paris, France, December 2010

 

P.S. If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of jumping, I recommend:

  1. http://www.hopeline.com/
  2. http://www.postsecret.com/
  3. http://www.jamesaltucher.com/2011/06/suicide-and-13-other-ways-to-deal-with-failure/
  4. You are loved

 

 

 

Place (Still) Matters

Between the recession and the millenial generation’s anti-employer movement more of us than ever before are freelancing and working from home. Right now from your couch you could be working on a contract assignment for a large corporation or starting the next Google. [I can’t be the only one that works from my couch, right?]

My couch looks sort of like this one.

The important revolution is that work isn’t a place- it’s a verb. Theoretically, most of us could do our work from anywhere. If you’re on the “work is a verb” bandwagon it’s important to recognize: place still matters.

I could work from my house day in and day out cut off from the world except for my thrice-hourly twitter feed and gmail checks. In fact some days that is exactly what I do. Other days I crave inspiration, interaction, and humanity.

To solve this problem I meet friends and co-work at local coffee shops. I make the short commute downtown for working lunches at corner cafes surrounded by the white-collar hustle and bustle. Soon [read: when it fits in the budget] I plan to take the leap and get a “permanent desk” at Launch Pad.

Some folks are natural introverts and don’t mind working in complete isolation. If that’s you, you do not have my permission to work at home alone every day. Trust me, you don’t want to turn into this guy.

The Oatmeal - Working from home is both awesome and horrible

But aside from turning into “that guy” – There is an argument for doing your work where others are working. Oh look, a handy little list:

  • Feedback — Immediate, in-person, full senses feedback is priceless. An email response is not the same as a visible first impression. If you’re working near someone you trust and respect, quick advice can save you hours of extra work or waiting for email responses.
  • Growth – It can be hard to get motivated, inspired, and opened up to new worlds of knowledge when working alone. Shared passions are like fertilizer for knowledge. Talk about what you love with others and bask in the sunlight of constant personal growth.
  • Networking – I’ve “met” a lot of great people on Twitter. It’s easier than ever to initiate a professional relationship online. But a real life handshake and conversation still beats every form of online communication to date. Most days I would be lost without my personal and professional networks to support me (this includes many job opportunities, introductions, and steering me in a new direction when I get fazed).
  • Mentorship – The most important thing here is to get a mentor. If you can only do this via email/skype, get to it. If your mentor is virtual try to find a way to meet up in person at least once a year. This is why they invented conferences and generally host them in fun places like, ahem, New Orleans.

Now if you are a regular couch-worker you might be wondering how to get started. Volunteer with organizations in your region. Go to business-themed happy hours, young alumni/ professional events, and meet-ups. Try working outside of your house two days a week. If these things don’t exist where you live find another couch-worker in your area and form a group. The hardest step is the one outside of your front door.

I’ve had great accidental conversations with powerful members of the New Orleans entrepreneurial community while riding a bus, sitting at a coffee shop, and at a bar during happy hour. All have moved my personal business forward in ways I couldn’t have predicted and none of them would have happened if I had been working from my couch.

How are you putting yourself out there? Do you have a co-working experience to share?

 

7 (Free!) Ways to Improve Employee Retention

Your employees don’t have to work for you. Some may have deluded themselves into thinking they have no other option. One day they will wake up and remember that they don’t actually have to work for you.

If an employee makes $50,000 a year and they quit, a company should expect to spend around $12,500 replacing that employee. For more details on how to calculate and reduce those costs check out Scott Allen’s post on the High Cost of Employee Turnover.

If you run a small business or a start-up, spending a lot of time and resources replacing employees can be an enormous burden. You probably also can’t afford to spend a lot of money on expensive over-the-top benefits to keep them around. With that in mind here are seven tips for keeping your employees happy, productive, and your employees.

Be Flexible

Sh*t happens. Real people have emergencies, sick kids, bad days, et cetera. If you want to avoid those situations, hire robots. If Sally is chronically late, have an honest conversation about her life outside of work and her work schedule. Does she have to get a kid to school on the other side of town? Does she just not function well at 7am? Can you let her come in and leave an hour later every day? As a boss it may seem like you can’t make those types of exceptions for one employee. You can. Especially if it means Sally will be working harder on behalf of your company’s long term goals.

Recognize Passion

Passion is poweful and when harnessed appropriately can be both a money maker and a motivator. If John gets excited every time he gets to work on X type of project, ask him what about that type of work is important to him personally. Think about how he can work on more projects similar to X. Find out if you can transfer his excitement in that area to other areas of his work.

If Adam seems uninspired by his tasks, have an open discussion about what you can do as an employer to change that. Inadequate training, office gossip/bullying, or even uncomfortable temperatures can turn a once-passionate employee into a mindless drone. Don’t let easy-to-remedy issues hold employees back from really loving their work.

Encourage Growth

As a product of the information age, today’s employees have broader interests. Abby in accounting reads regularly about social media. Dylan the IT analyst trades foreign commodity stocks online. Encourage cross-pollination whenever you can. Multi-specialty teams remove boundaries and give employees the opportunity to work in an area of interest without formal training.

Google boosted productivity, retention, and recruiting by enacting their “Innovation Time Off” policy. This policy allows employees to spend up to 20% of their time doing whatever they want and is responsible for a large amount of Google’s breakthrough products. Providing 20% of “free time” may be extreme, but use the idea as a starting point to consider how you can allow employees to stretch their minds while boosting your bottom line.

Listen Actively

Employees are very rarely comfortable telling their boss or their boss’ boss how they really feel. Perform anonymous 360 degree evaluations. Everyone who interacts with an employee should evaluate them and that includes having subordinates evalute managers. Trust your employees to provide valuable, honest feedback and they will.

The second component to active listening is making sure your employees know consideration will be given to their feedback. If someone comes to you with a concern don’t immediately dismiss it no matter how outrageous or wrong you think it might be. Being dismissive and condescending is a sure-fire way to let your employees know they aren’t valued. Always have a follow-up conversation after a complaint.

Communicate a Common Goal

Have a clearly defined mission. Talk about it regularly. Post it on the wall. It should be short, memorable, and actionable enough for your employees to remember and repeat. If you find your mission needing a refresh, involve your employees in the re-writing process.

Hire the Right People

Just because you need someone right now doesn’t mean you should hire the wrong person. The long term costs of poor hiring decisions are too high. Sometimes the most important factor when evaluating potential hires is culture, followed by work ethic, and finally by relevant experience.

I once worked in a tight-knit group of about 10 entry-level employees with a culture of mutual learning and respect. A middle manager was hired who clashed with the culture of both the organization and small group. Before long, after being thrust into a backstabbing and pompous environment all but one member of the team had resigned.

Employees are Humans First

Every one of your employees has a brain, a heart, and a soul. They also have a past, present, and future. Respect them as individuals. When appropriate show an interest in their lives outside of work. Your employees are not your enemies or your competition. Quitting is a lot more fun when you work for an asshole.

Have you worked in an environment with high turnover? What could the employer have done to keep people from quitting?

No such thing as a free… spillway?

There is no such thing as a free lunch.

My high school economics teacher told us that even if you get a “free” lunch, you are spending time and consuming finite resources. What else could you be doing with that time? It’s possible that more value could be gained by eating in different company. Another option would be to work straight through lunch while knocking back a (gasp!) peanut butter & jelly sandwich.

The cost of going to work on any given day is not the cost of gas + your hourly pay. It is both of those plus the cost of not spending your time and energy starting a company, furthering your education, playing with your children, eradicating world hunger… and the list goes on.

Every decision involves an opportunity cost

In government, opportunity costs are exponential and controversial. In a true cost benefit analysis, a dollar value is assigned to everything, including human lives. How much money is one Quality Adjusted Life Year worth? According to this study, $129,000.

Recently, we’ve all been talking about the trade off between flooding some parts of the country to avoid flooding more populated areas and major cities. The rivers are swollen from heavy winter snow and spring rains. If we do nothing, everyone runs the risk of major flooding. If we flood less populated areas, the pressure is reduced and potentially thousands of lives are saved.

This is the situation currently in South Louisiana

Corps of Engineers map of possible flood levels

The Morganza Floodway, if opened, will displace more than 22,000 residents, seriously harming homes, crops, and a region’s way of life. Without opening the floodway, more than a million residents may be displaced throughout Greater New Orleans and Baton Rouge.

Even if levees hold back the floods, the Coast Guard noted they will likely close the river to vessels if it rises above 18 feet. According to Gary Lagrange of the Port of New Orleans, the national economic impact of closing the port is $295 million per day, and grows exponentially after the fourth day.

The bottom line: damage will be done

Engineers work out exact risk percentages for each possible scenario. Financial economists look at the same scenarios and assign the expected cost of damages and the overall economic impact.

In a perfectly rational and objective world, the decision would be easy. The problem arises when we have incomplete data, and no way to measure certain losses. What is the monetary value of culture? What kind of emotional damage will be done? With a region still physically and mentally scarred from several major disasters, those costs are hard to pinpoint.

So instead of being quick to judge, let’s put ourselves in the shoes of the decision-maker. As a casual observer it can seem like the “right” decision should be obvious. Presented with a large amount of imperfect information, lives at stake, and the pressure of the masses, I imagine it might be a little harder to actually pull the trigger.

Idols are Overrated

Tim Ferriss poops. He probably poops a lot if he follows his own advice. Tim Ferriss is also worth a poop-ton of money. He’s built a valuable personal brand, written two NY Times bestsellers, sold a company he started from scratch, and angel-invested in companies including Twitter and Posterous.

I can be as successful as Tim Ferriss. Do you know that you can be as successful as Tim Ferriss, too? I don’t mean have an awareness of the possiblity, I mean deep down believe with every fiber that you and Tim Ferriss are really not so different.

Kevin Rose, Tim Ferriss, and Paula Abdul (via http://www.flickr.com/photos/minjung/)

Let’s dig deeper:

Idolizing someone as a role model and a guide can be a powerful motivator as long as we believe we can reach his or her level of success. If the pedestal is so high it seems insurmountable, an idol can turn into an equally forceful demotivator.

If a person is so far beyond our level of intelligence, capability, and influence that we are insignificant next to them, self doubt can rip apart our confidence and diminish our ability to question his or her authority. In learning, questioning is everything. Great advances in science, medicine, and philosophy, are achieved when one individual questions a limiting belief. An outsider says, “It can’t be done,” and she responds, “why not?”

He makes mistakes. She feels happy, sad, proud, and angry. He forms incorrect assumptions and relies on them to make decisions. She can’t always distinguish the forest from the trees. He is a priest. She is a surgeon.

If you feel in your gut that one of them is wrong, how likely are you to speak up?

My bit of this story

My sisters and I were taught to idolize and look up to successful and powerful people. When I was 10, the idea of being a doctor, lawyer, or a politician seemed glamorous and vaguely possible. With age and education, each of those career paths diminished in glamour but grew in possibility.

I graduated from Tulane with a group of about 35 students in my program. A third of them went to medical school, a handful to law school, and several remained in the same program for graduate school. A few of them are more intellectually gifted than I am. Most of them just didn’t sleep during college. Each in their own way, they will make a difference. In my own way, I will make a difference.

The bottom line of this semi-ranting post:

  1. Everyone is human
  2. Think that the “experts” might be wrong
  3. Remember that you are powerful

 

Perfection is the Anti-Innovation and 4 Other Things I Learned From Pottery

I’ve spent 10 years learning, practicing, and (more frequently) totally failing at making pottery. With mud up to my elbows and another mess in the trash bucket, I jotted down these five transferable lessons.

Learn from a master

Finding a mentor can be a daunting task. If you can’t find a “master” to work under, find someone who knows a little more than you. If you can’t find someone who knows a little more, find someone who is creative, ambitious, and willing to learn alongside you.

Don’t let someone else tell you what to do. Ask them to tell you what they do. Then, watch what they actually do and note the differences. Practice what they do, feel out how well their methods work for you, and adjust them until you find your own personal sweet spot for success.

Breathe

Breathe a little more. Breathe a little deeper. Release bad energy before it seeps into everything you do.

A "teapot" I created in 2005

Push hard, but not too hard

When working on a pottery wheel, creating a beautiful bowl requires pushing the sides away from the center. This is a slow, patience-testing process. It takes strength to mold the piece to your desired shape, but if you push just a little bit too hard the whole thing will fall apart.

In a similar way, people mold to the dominant ideas and personalities around them. Feel people out, test boundaries, pay attention to nuances in speech, body language, and behavior. Give a little push, point the conversation and their work in a direction that suits you. Just remember not to push too hard, otherwise you might both trip up and land flat on your faces.

Make a plan, but be prepared to give it up

  1. Draw out your vision on paper. Make as many variations to it as you can. Add wings, glitter, and funky eyeballs to get those cerebral juices flowing.
  2. Test it out in theory. Turn it upside down, backwards, and inside out in your head. Note your assumptions and possible points of failure.
  3. Test it out IRL. If you do the same thing more than three times and it doesn’t work, something is wrong with your assumptions, your execution, or your idea itself.
  4. Don’t beat a dead horse. Pat yourself on the back for trying something new and move on.

Perfection is the anti-innovation

There are a lot of ideas floating around in the world about “perfection.” In this context, perfection is creating exactly what one sets out to create. Innovation is also a product of creation. By creating fast, frequently, and passionately levels of both perfection and innovation can be achieved, but not at the same time. Perfection requires deliberate, pre-determined actions and practice. Innovation requires freedom to fail and adjust your sails when the wind changes.

Picasso created many beautiful, perfect paintings. He also created the Guernica, and was arguably one of the most innovative artists of the 19th century. Follow directions and color in the lines for perfection. For innovation, accept any and every outcome as a new definition of perfection.

What life lessons have you learned from your hobbies?

On the pursuit: An introduction

You may have noticed the snippet, “On the pursuit” in the header. According to dictionary.com, the definition of “pursuit” is as follows:

pur·suit
[per-soot] –noun

  1. the act of pursuing: in pursuit of the fox.
  2. an effort to secure or attain; quest: the pursuit of happiness.

Contrary to the Declaration of Independence, my personal philosophy is that “the pursuit of happiness” is misguided. Happiness can be the warmth of sunshine, the splattering of rain, or a cool breeze. Happiness is a state of mind to be embraced, not searched for. I pursue further knowledge and broader experiences. I’m on a quest for alternative points of view and new questions. I laugh as I learn.

If you don’t already know me I invite you to check out the Life Story page. Please contact me directly with post suggestions or general inquiries. To keep up with my daily rants and fun, follow me on twitter.

In pursuit,

Molly

p.s. What are you pursuing? Share it with me in the comments!