Sunday, December 23, 2012

No work on Christmas? Bah humbug!

It's Norman Rockwell's fault.

Yesterday, I was chatting with a nurse practitioner about the upcoming holidays, and she said rather proudly that she would be working in the emergency room at Tucson Medical Center on Christmas day just as she had done the last 20 years.

Her comment stood out in sharp contrast to the sappy sentiments that I often hear about how horrible it is that people have to work on holidays. Well, actually not all holidays come under fire. It's usually only Thanksgiving and Christmas that conjure up the farcical and romanticized renderings of so-called American life that Norman Rockwell became so famous for.

And that's why I blame him.

Even Charles Dickens, champion of the working class, who penned A Christmas Carol in 1843 depicted the hustle and bustle of buying and selling on Christmas Day. The large goose that Ebeneezer Scrooge bought for the family of Bob Cratchit was both bought and delivered on Christmas Day. In fact Dickens made it very clear that buying and selling was part of what made Christmas a special day.

Thankfully, many people don't buy into this "no work" on holidays nonsense. Fire fighters, police officers, EMTs, utility workers, ranchers, IT specialists (to keep all of those servers running so you can continue to like your friends' Facebook posts...) broadcast workers, farmers, etc. all work on Christmas so our lives peacefully go on uninterrupted.

The next time you hear someone squawk about how no one should have to work on Christmas day, remind them how very fortunate we are that not everyone shares those beliefs.
Photo credit: Merry Christmas Grandma. We came in our new Chevy. Norman Rockwell
Copyright © Deborah A. Ayers - All rights reserved.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Zig Ziglar - RIP

"It's your attitude, not your aptitude, that determines your ultimate altitude."

That's just one of the catchy slogans coined by motivational speaker and writer Zig Ziglar who passed away last week at the age of 86.

I first heard Zig Ziglar when he was a guest on a radio program when I was in my early twenties. He had a deep confident voice laced with a folksy southern drawl that made him well suited for a career in public speaking. I never saw him speak in person, but a couple of books he authored are still on my bookshelf and a quick search in a desk drawer unearthed his "See You At the Top" presentation on cassette tape.(I no longer own a device that will play it, but I still couldn't part with the tape.)

He was deinitely one of the first of what became a long litany of positive attitude disciples that I've heard or read in the ensuing years. Although there are many similarities between Zig Ziglar, Wayne Dyer, Tony Robbins, Brian Tracey, et al., Zig always struck me as being guided by a bigger moral compass. He remains one of the very few people I have ever encountered who expressed a Christian belief AND who did not spout doom, gloom, hell and damnation. In those years, he had a virtual monopoly on that perspective.

When I taught freshman microeconomics, I used one of his quotes to summarize how capitalism and the profit motive works.

"You can get everything you want out of life, if you just help enough other people get what they want."
(I'll forego the entire lecture that accompanied it, but I can assure you it was riveting.)

A student of human nature, Zig Ziglar also observed that people often went to work and worried about family only to return home to worry about work so that "they ain't never nowhere." Wrapping up that segment he would ask,
"Are you a meaningful specific or a wandering generality?"
Although I could argue now that there's a time and a place for being a wandering generality, his message of the importance of setting goals, focusing on the present, and keeping positive in a negative world still resonates. RIP.
Copyright © Deborah A. Ayers - All rights reserved.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Unplugged from work - Day Five - I did it!

I did manage to stay unplugged from work for five days. Part of my success was luck and part of it was timing. Nothing urgent happened…well, at least nothing that anyone has admitted to… And although it didn’t used to be, the span of time during the academic year was a relatively quiet time to be gone. Rescheduling what had been on my calendar was fairly easy, and all of this had weighed in to my decision to take the step back in the first place.

The hardest days were Sunday (remember, I work EVERY day) and Monday. It was as if I was playing an Olympic volleyball game in my head against myself. One part of me would power serve a thought about work across the net of my consciousness. Another part of me would lunge to hit it out of play. During those first couple of days, the serves were relentless, and I often found myself working harder at trying NOT to think about work than I would if I was actually working.

On day two and three, the intensity of the game eased a bit. By the end of the week, my power server had about as much oomph as an aging relative playing a game of sand lot volleyball at the annual family reunion. At that point, it wasn’t hard to claim victory.

The whole point of my week-long mental jousting was to force myself to face a loss. Or more specifically, yet another loss. In a relatively short period of time, I have lost my mother, a close friend who I considered a family member, and a beloved furry companion.

For the first two, I never missed a beat at the office. Who has time to mourn? Besides, it’s so much easier to just slip back into the whirlwind. Finally, the cumulative effect required an acknowledgement.

In the Jewish faith, there is the tradition of “sitting Shiva” after the death of a family member. Shiva literally means seven and during this week, the mourner is not supposed to do any work while family and friends gather for support, remember the deceased, and allow for grieving and healing. I’m not a Jew, but I could see the wisdom in this forced stepping back.

So I did.

I’m not going to wait 11 years to do it again.

Copyright © Deborah A. Ayers - All rights reserved.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Unplugged from work: Day Four

Today has definitely been the "easiest" day to be unplugged. I suppose I've reached the point of WTF. I've made it this long, one or two more days of disconnect won't really matter.

Using my smartphone, I can see how many messages are sitting in my inbox without actually opening it. Right now, there are fewer in there than I expected, and I wasn't the slightest bit tempted to peek.

That's progress!

And for the record, I do not count looking at my inbox tally as "working," but rather a way to monitor my own endurance. Or apathy. Or both.

The past couple of days have been a weird mix of feeling as if time is flying by while at the same time confronting a great yawning expanse of endlessness. That probably reads a bit more melodramatic or poetic than what I'm actually experiencing.

This whole exercise wasn't about doing. It was about simply being. To that end, so far, so good.
Copyright © Deborah A. Ayers - All rights reserved.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Unplugged from work: Day Three

Today I read a Hardy Boy book, The Secret of the Old Mill. I used to read these books as a kid. In fact, the books that I read belonged to my father when HE was a kid. I've read this one before...goodness knows how many years ago. It was one of the originals complete with expressions like "Swell" and "Jeepers."
Copyright © Deborah A. Ayers - All rights reserved.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Unplugged from work: Day Two

I'm sitting on my catio watching the fading glow of a spectacular sunset as the city lights begin to twinkle on. This is my favorite time of the day to be here.

I have successfully avoided checking in to the office for a second day. Admittedly, the day isn't over yet, but I'm confident I can avoid checking in this evening.

Although my mind returns to work frequently throughout the day--er, perhaps every few minutes or so, I find the span of time starting to lengthen.

It's easier to disengage when my surroundings change from the norm. Today, I went exploring more of the nearby trails. My neighborhood, which most people would already say is "out in the middle of nowhere" is surrounded on the northern and eastern side by the Coronado National Forest--or more specifically, even more nowhere. I could walk for miles and not see another living soul. Nirvana!
Copyright © Deborah A. Ayers - All rights reserved.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Unplugged from work - Day One

Today begins Day One - Unplugged. It's probably not one of my prouder admissions, but since at least July of 2001 (and it may be longer) I have only removed myself from work for seven whole days.
Five of those seven days were on a trip to St. Lucia in 2004. No Internet connection or phone service was available, but I still managed to check my work from the airport right up until they started to board the plane.

The other two days were basically personal endurance tests to see if I could actually go 24 consecutive hours without checking in. I checked in at 8:00 AM and remained offline from work until 8:00 AM the next morning, and if truth be told, I probably cheated a bit on both ends. Seven days a week, 365 days a year, I am working on something.

Before one jumps to the conclusion that I might have OCD tendencies--I do--but that's beside the point, I log so many hours because if I don't, I can't keep up. My day begins with the first volley of email before I even hit the shower. If I leave the office at 6:00 PM, and log back in at 8:00 PM, I often have 30 messages waiting for me. That prompts me to put in an additional couple of hours of work in the evening before the cycle begins again the next day. Day after day after day.

To cope with that volume on those rare occasions when I am away, my automated out of office reply usually says that "I'm out of the office, and I will not be checking my email 10,387 times a day." But I WILL check it. And people usually continue to call, email, and text while I'm gone as if I've never left.

For the last decade, a day off for me has meant checking in during the morning, again in the afternoon, and again in the evening to "triage." But even if it's something that only takes five or ten minutes to manage, it still  puts me back in work mode and always being in work mode never allows time to fully recharge.  Ironically, I have always insisted that my colleagues take time for themselves because I know the value in stepping away from work but for whatever reason, I have not extended that privilege to myself.

I may never catch up from trying to disconnect for an entire week. But that's my goal. I put in my payroll last night. I've already had a couple of text messages this morning, but today is Day One - Unplugged.
Copyright © Deborah A. Ayers - All rights reserved.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

MOOCs will accompany Second Life into obscurity

The current buzz running through the higher education press over MOOCs or Massive Open Online Courses is eerily similar to the wild enthusiasm that Second Life generated. Sure, you've practically forgotten Second Life, but circa 2005, it was touted as the next evolution in the web and guaranteed to revolutionize not only online education, but all online human interaction. Today, it's all but fizzled into obscurity.

Now, I can't wade through a day without a podcast, blog, education journal, or e-newsletter gushing about how MOOCs will change everything. (If you've been off-world for several months and need a quick update on MOOCs, this short video by Dave Cormier can quickly bring you up to speed or read his more detailed piece posted by EDUCAUSE.)

Granted when players such as Stanford, UC Berkley, Harvard, and MIT get involved with mega-million dollar investments people tend to pay attention, but is this model of the open online course going to empty traditional classrooms? Will taking a series of classes for credit that then translates into a college degree become as obsolete as a slide rule? Leaving aside the reality that schools can't even agree to accept each others' English Composition courses, I can unhesitantly and unequivocally say, "No!"

First, the recent surge of enrollments in MOOCs can be attributed as much to voyeurism as scholarly work. Strip out the attendance from those eager university administrators, worried professors and curious bloggers and the growth won't look nearly so staggering.

Second, minus the groups previously mentioned, the vast majority of those people who are taking these courses already have a college degree or at least achieved a level of expertise in the subject so that they don't need the college credits. The software engineer from Seattle or the coding genius from Bangalore who enroll in a MOOC to learn about Artificial Intelligence will be as much contributors to the content as they will be recipients.

What isn't being talked about it is that the final consumer of a college degree isn't the student who enrolls in the classes. Students are only intermediate consumers and certainly not very demanding ones.

As most instructors can attest, with few exceptions, students do not enroll in Accounting or Chemistry because of a passion for the subject matter--much to the chagrin of those who have made it their life's work to teach and conduct research in these fields. Instead, these buyers of higher education enroll because they know they need to pass the course to be awarded the credits that will earn them the degree. The degree then becomes a kind of currency that the labor market understands making business the ultimate consumer. Until schools can agree upon a credit exchange rate, courses taken through MOOCs will be virtually worthless currency.

This isn't to say, however, that MOOCs are worthless. The real benefit to the schools fronting these initiatives is tapping into this student network of knowledge in an era of diminished endowments, reduced state budgets, and cut-backs on corporate research and development. From this angle, MOOCs just might make some noticeable contributions.

Copyright © Deborah A. Ayers - All rights reserved.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Outliers - It takes 10,000 hours to be one.

So often popular business books focus on trends, averages, and generalities. But Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, turned his attention away from the mass in the middle, and instead looked outward to the end of the bell curve. In statistics, the term outlier is used to mean something that lies outside of the expected range of values. Malcolm Gladwell examined what it is that makes that select few wildly successful.

Throughout the book, he asks two questions over and over: "Where are these people from?" and "When did they live?". His research creates compelling arguments that these two factors have as much to do with "unusual achievement" as the people themselves.

In addition to the so-called luck of being born at the right time in the right place, he also concludes that successful people devote a minimum of 10,000 hours of practice before they get really good at something.

In other words, the Beatles didn't just stumble onto the world stage as great performers. They came of age during a time that was ready for their wild rock-n-roll, and they had the chance to hone their craft in Hamburg, Germany playing as much as eight hours a day, seven days a week. When America watched their first performance on the Ed Sullivan show on February 9, 1964, the Beatles had already logged their prerequisite 10,000 hours of practice that would launch them into greatness.

If Bill Gates had been born a few years earlier, or if he had lived in a different city, the evolution of the personal computer would have taken a completely different path. In 1968, a 13-year-old Bill Gates joined a computer club where he accessed a time-sharing computer with a direct link to a mainframe in downtown Seattle. Gladwell argues that probably no other high school kid in America had access to so much time-share computing. He's probably right on that count since at that time, most university professors were still using punch cards.

Over the next few years, Bill Gates' interest in computers became an obsession. "In one seven-month period in 1971, Gates and his cohorts ran up 1,575 hours of computer time on the ISI mainframe, which averages out to eight hours a day, seven days a week," Gladwell writes. He was already well on his way to 10,000 hours.

Although I agree that the "Where" and "When" Gladwell uncovers are contributing factors in success, and may even be the primary ones, I don't believe he gives enough credit to the individuals. Sure the Beatles were born at the right time and place, but it was this merry band of men who relentlessly played in seedy clubs in Hamburg to perfect their craft. It was Bill Gates' inner geek that drove him to spend so many hours programming. If different people had been in the so-called right time and place, an opportunity for wild success would have no doubt been lost.

With Gladwell's engaging writing, this book is a quick read, and it's not likely one you'll read again. However, his 10,000 hour rule has become a common business reference.
Copyright © Deborah A. Ayers - All rights reserved.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Put on your own oxygen mask first

One look at the guy and I could tell he was burned out. He had just returned from a week of vacation, but he already felt he needed another one. He was even toying with the idea of quitting his job. Burnout does that to you.

Out of desperation, he was planning to take more time off, and I listened to him list all of the pressing matters and needy people that would consume his time away from the office.

I asked him what he enjoyed doing, and if he remembered the last time that he did it. I knew he wouldn't, and of course, he didn't.

Because I work in a 24/7 environment, I am prone to burn-out too, so I passed along some advice that I've learned from the airlines.

Flight attendants lecture us before take-off, that in the event of a drop in cabin pressure, passengers should first put on their own oxygen mask before helping others who may need their assistance. That sounds counter-intuitive, but you can’t help others if you yourself can’t breathe.

Burnout stems from resentment, and although there's a certain feeling of superiority to announce to the world "Who has time to relax?" the inevitable result is a deadness and apathy that has us just going through the motions of life. It can be a hard lesson to learn, but we are more useful to our family, place of employment, and the million other things that we're responsible for if we first give ourselves a chance to breathe.

That means carving out the time to ignore the "To do" list and doing something that recharges, and re-invigorates--whether that something is puttering in the garden, reading that best-seller, or going out with friends. 

Burnout doesn't happen overnight, nor does it go away overnight. But mindfully making time for ourselves to regenerate without guilt goes a long way to repairing the damage--and we owe it to everyone to do it.
Copyright © Deborah A. Ayers - All rights reserved.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Apple vs the Department of Justice - A page-turning whodunit

The case the Department of Justice (DOJ) has brought against Apple and five book publishers has been unfolding for weeks with all the drama of a page-turning whodunit. The villains, Apple along with HarperCollins, Simon and Schuster, Hachette, Penguin Group (USA) and Macmillan are accused of conspiring to fix the prices of ebooks against the looming threat of renegade Amazon.
Kindle-carrying consumers are the witless victims while the DOJ casts itself as the justice-serving hero.

The story begins with Amazon having the audacity to sell ebooks for $9.99 thus wringing out much of the fat margin from book publishers. Steve Jobs knew this move quite well. The deceased Apple CEO's iTunes model did the same thing to the music industry. One can almost imagine the whack to the forehead as Mr. Jobs wondered why he hadn't thought of this first.

Rather than trying to get its share of the profits, and perhaps even beating Amazon at its own game, Apple allegedly schemed with the publishers to set prices at $12.99 or $14.99 and hence the conspiracy, or "restraint of trade" as the economics textbooks will cite, was born.

"As a result of this alleged conspiracy, we believe that consumers paid millions of dollars more for some of the most popular titles," said Attorney General Eric Holder.


But was the consumer harmed? Or more specifically, will the DOJ "remedy" help more than the market mechanism that does a pretty good job of policing itself without lawyers.

Even if the companies all settle out of court, here's what's likely to happen.
  1. The publishers and Apple will be fined and charged with legal fees. (The attorneys win.)
  2. The fines will be distributed as vouchers toward future purchases to consumers who can prove that they purchased an ebook at these "inflated" prices. (Who saves this kind of receipt?)
  3. Publishers and Apple reap extra sales if consumers cash in their vouchers. (The publishers and Apple win.)
In the interim, I don't see a lot of hand-wringing angst among the eReader crowd. They all seem pretty happy with their purchases--at whatever price they paid.

If allowed to develop on its own, without the Detective DOJ character, this story would have a much different ending. Clearly, no one advocates this type of collusion, but if and when it does happen, it seldom holds up for long. Human nature, or corporate greed as its usually dubbed, wins out in the long run as the incentive to cheat and gain market share takes hold. Conspirators become competitors, and the actions of the DOJ merely punish innovative American corporations.

And as with most good novels, there's always a plot twist. The real threat to the cozy publishing industry may not yet be introduced for several more chapters. The wise thing to do would be to stop trying to rewrite the script and just keep reading

Update July 10, 2013: Judge Finds Apple Colluded with Publishers on E-Book Pricing. Yep. I knew it!

Copyright © Deborah A. Ayers - All rights reserved.
(Shutterstock photo)

Monday, March 5, 2012

Marketing Your Website - 1997 to 2012

I was sorting through some files today, not electronic files mind you, but dead-tree files, and I came across a folder that held the remains of a presentation I gave for small business owners in 1997 titled, "Marketing Your Website." Tucked in the back was an overhead transparency with the bullet points of my lecture. I remember I would often have to resort to this low-tech tool because there usually wasn't a projector in the room that would connect to a PC.

It was after all the early years of the commercialized World Wide Web.

Although social media, a huge part of web marketing today, is absent from my list, the points from 1997 are ironically still very applicable today.
  • Clarify
    Define your objectives. What purpose will your web site serve? In 1997 as well as today, many small business websites are simply glorified Yellow Page listings. (And who even looks at a phone book anymore?)

    Although that type of site is better than no web presence at all, people go to websites to learn more about a business than what they could find through other channels. Pictures of the product or service, a map, and customer testimonials are just a few suggestions for a basic site that worked as well in 1997 as they do today. Trivia: The web service of Mapquest was born in 1996, and Google maps didn't launch until 2004!

  • Commitment
    Maintain and promote your website as a part of the organization. The URL should be on business cards, letter head, print ads, etc. A website address is just as important as a phone number.

  • Contact
    Make sure your customers/clients find your contact information--mailing address, phone number, and an email address that is checked regularly! This adds legitimacy to your web presence.

  • Content
    Adding fresh content to your site keeps people coming back. If you own a nursery, offer up seasonal planting tips. A personal trainer can suggest healthful recipes. For clues as to the web content that makes sense for your business, think about what you might find yourself telling your customer/client in person. This advice is as relevant today as it was 15 years ago, but today the whole element of social media would be added.

  • Connect
    Fifteen years ago, this meant ensuring that your site was listed on search engine sites. For my presentation, I had listed Infoseek, Excite, AltaVista (which used to be my personal favorite in that era), Lycos, Yahoo!, and Web Crawler. Eerily absent is Google. I'd be willing to bet that most people who are reading this either don't know or don't remember any of these search engines save Yahoo! Today, there's a whole science behind Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and connecting is even more relevant today.

  • Concise
    Edit, edit, and then edit again. People have short attention spans when reading on the web. All pages should be easy to navigate. Omit unnecessary words. Content should be concise.

  • Copy
    Proofread or better yet, have someone else proofread everything. The web can be a bit loose with spelling and grammar, but that free-wheeling attitude has no place in a business site. Many people will discount your credibility immediately if they see an error. If you don't pay attention to such public details, what does that say about how you manage a business?
All of this was good advice in 1997, and it's still good advice today. And now that I've committed it to a blog, I don't think I need that transparency anymore!
Copyright © Deborah A. Ayers - All rights reserved.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Ditching the overpriced and underused textbook


College students may have turned up the volume of their discontent about college textbooks, but grumbling about them certainly isn't new. In all of my years in higher education, the most consistent complaint that crops up on course evaluations has been about textbooks. They're boring. They're expensive. And perhaps most surprising, they're barely used.

And it's not just students floundering below C-level who aren't cracking them open. Even "A" students skip the book.

I never quite understood how this could be possible until I discovered what detailed class notes many instructors were distributing to their students. Perhaps without even realizing it, faculty were creating an abridged version of the text highlighting only those things that would be on the exam.

Except for the most judicious or naive, who would bother to read the book?

Last year, Steven Bell, associate university librarian at Temple University offered small grants to 11 faculty members to design their own textbook. Most used resources available through the university's library along with their own notes, and online resources that are freely available. It appears as if the alt-textbook experiment was an overwhelming success. Students saved some money, were more engaged in the content, and faculty tapped the most current information.

Textbook publishers have tried to keep pace with the shrinking attention spans and price fatigue of the typical college student by developing digital assets and other "ancillaries" as they're known in the business. But whether a textbook is consumed in its dead-tree format or on an e-reader, it's still an arcane relic from a by-gone era. Temple University may be onto something.
Copyright © Deborah A. Ayers - All rights reserved.