What Do You Bring to the Table?

As the new school year begins, seniors in high school and college are dreaming of wrapping up their experience at their current institutions, and even high school juniors are planning their next stage of life. Most people save their advice for the end of the year around graduation, but I’m going to hit you with it now when it might have a chance to do some good. Let me start with a story.

Many years ago, I studied acting. By all accounts I was talented – just how talented I couldn’t say, since nobody is an objective judge of themselves, but for the sake of argument let’s say I was talented enough to go far. That was the problem. I was used to get by on talent, and not used to having to rely on other things like skill, hard work, or even being a decent human being to the rest of the troupe.

Fast forward a few years. By the time I got to college I was surrounded by people who had talent, and most of them were at least as good as I was. I wasn’t just a little fish in a big pond at this point; I was swimming with sharks, and they were hungry. Now it wasn’t “aren’t you amazingly talented”, it was “what do you bring to the table”? Talent was a given, and for the folks who didn’t have it they kept in the running by being twice as skilled or three times as valuable in some other way. I’ll be honest: I didn’t last long.

That dose of humility was bruising, but it was just what I needed. If I had managed to get it much earlier, I might have stayed in acting a lot longer, because I would have taken the time to develop more of what I needed sooner. Fact is once you get out in the world, people will stop handing you things (and yes, believe me, whether you realize it or not people are handing you things right now). Once you are nothing but the next person in line, the question isn’t going to be “how well did you do on the test?” or “do you have a degree?” because the assumption is you passed the test, or you have a degree.

Here are the things you need to be thinking about moving forward: How well do you engage with other people? How much of a team player are you? Can you be a leader and a follower as the situation requires? What sets you apart from everyone else in your field, but in a good way? Why should an employer want you on their team?

What do you bring to the table?

Dating Advice From Famous Poets

Maya Angelou

By York College ISLGP [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By York College ISLGP [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Dear Ms. Angelou,

I’m writing to you because I’m quite vexed over my father’s intractable position vis-à-vis the proposal of my commencing a relationship with a boy. I am fully capable of making my own decisions, having already attained twelve full years of age, and while I have not yet reached menarche, I am still as much a woman grown as any of the other girls in my class, many of whom have already gone on one or more dates. I think he is being completely unreasonable. What say you?


A Caged Bird, Too


Dear Fledgling,

A free bird leaps
on the back of the wind
and risks unknown
are hers to embrace
without a care
to cast aside the chains
of a life left behind.

But a bird that stalks
down her narrow cage
held back by father’s
blindness and fear
her wings are clipped and
she knows not why
so she opens her throat to sing.

The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and her tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.

The free bird gets cruel education
on the price of casual flirtation
and the handsome boys not as good as their word
and her eyes with tears are blurred.

But a caged bird knows more than a father could
He’d lighten up if he understood
But he still says “no” and locks the doors
so she opens her throat to sing.

The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and her tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.


Edgar Allen Poe

Daguerreotype of Edgar Allan Poe, known as the "Annie" Daguerreotype.

Daguerreotype of Edgar Allan Poe, known as the “Annie” Daguerreotype.

Dear Mr. Poe,

I’m planning to propose to the love of my life, my beautiful girlfriend of many years, and I want to do it somewhere special, someplace so magical she’ll never forget it. Can you offer any suggestions?


Searching for the Moment


Dear Lost in the Moment,

It was many and many a year ago,
In a kingdom by the sea,
I proposed to a girl you may know
By the name of ANNABEL LEE;–

Let’s just say things didn’t exactly work out
The way that I thought they would be.
If I had it all to do over
In that kingdom by the sea,
We would have just gone out to a nice dinner–
I and my Annabel Lee.

My advice? Bundle up, stay inside, stay warm —


Dr. Seuss

Ted Geisel (Dr. Seuss) half-length portrait, seated at desk covered with his books / World Telegram & Sun photo by Al Ravenna

Ted Geisel (Dr. Seuss) half-length portrait, seated at desk covered with his books / World Telegram & Sun photo by Al Ravenna

Dear Dr. Seuss,

I’m not sure who to ask about this, but here goes. I’ve started noticing the boys in my class, and I think I like them, you know, in that way. Which would be great, except I’m a boy too.  Which I guess means I’m gay? And some people say being gay is bad, and other people say it’s not, and I just don’t know what to think. What do you think?


Confused and Lost


Dear Lost and Found,

There once was a girl named Julie Madevin,
A charming young thing the age of eleven.
She had a crush on a boy in her class,
The boy known as Billy Sassafrass.
Julie thought that he was quite alright;
His eyes were blue, his pants were tight.
But there was something the other kids would say:
They all insisted that Billy was gay.
Julie didn’t know what to do,
So she ran home and asked her mommies two.
They told her this was quite alright,
And Julie slept quite well that night.


Lord Byron

George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron, by Richard Westall, from National Portrait Gallery, London.

George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron, by Richard Westall, from National Portrait Gallery, London.

Dear Lord Byron,

I want to do something really special for my wife for Valentine’s Day this year. It’s been a rough year, and I really want to show her I love her more than anything in the world. You’re renowned as one of the greatest romantics of all time; can you please give me something to show her just how much I love her?


Truly Desperately In Love


Dear Truly Desperate,

I dunno. Flowers?



The Misery Contest

Have you ever noticed how misery has become a contest? It seems like no matter where you go, every time you try to tell a tale of woe, someone else has their own tale to tell, and of course it tops yours. Have a rash? They have a burn. Have a cut? They lost a limb. Got dumped? They got divorced and lost the house in the bargain. There’s always something.

I’m not sure if this is supposed to be commiseration or one-upmanship, but either way I’d like to say “you’re doing it wrong.” Commiseration should be something simple, serious, and heartfelt. An acknowledgement of our common humanity, perhaps coupled with words of comfort. “Dude, that sucks. I’m really sorry to hear that.”

While I would prefer not to encourage one-upmanship (I consider it a distasteful habit, like picking your nose in public or voting), if one is going to engage in it should be done properly as well. Save it for when people are discussing something of value, like a house, a car, or a job. The only proper application of such one-upmanship is when someone is being a particular douchebag, for example talking about their new house, car, and job all at once. In such cases a limited amount of one-upmanship can actually be a public service if applied immediately and without mercy.

In order to curb this outbreak of “misery contestants”, I would like to share an idea my wife and I came up with some years ago. It’s a simple little thing that can be done by anyone but, I think, might just help. Just carry around a roll of nickels with you wherever you go. Whenever someone starts in with the misery contest, hear them out. Let them get it all out there. If you’re feeling particularly pernicious, you can even egg them on a little. When they’re done, simply hand them a nickel and say, “Wow, you’re right. Your life is way worse than mine. Here, have a nickel.” Then walk away.

This simple gesture of faux sincerity and honest scorn will hopefully be the antidote to their sincere display of faux commiseration and honest self-aggrandizement.

The Glengarry Evolution

Recently I was reminded of a great article by David Wong on (of all places) Cracked about “6 Harsh Truths That Will Make You a Better Person” (h/t to Patrick Hoolahan). If you haven’t seen it yet you should check it out; great advice and possibly life changing. The part that really got to me the most was “#5. The Hippies Were Wrong”. Wong makes a lengthy point about the well-known and oft-reviled speech delivered by Alec Baldwin in Glegarry Glenross. For the three of you who haven’t seen it, I’ll include it here (also for the rest of you, because it is awesome):

Wong makes the point that “half of the people who watch it think that the point of the scene is ‘Wow, what must it be like to have such an asshole boss?’ and the other half think, ‘Fuck yes, let’s go out and sell some goddamned real estate!’” I have to admit, I used to be in the former camp. I’ve heard just about every version of this: “What have you done for me lately?” “Have you earned your seat on the bus today?” “What have you done to add value recently?” And on and on, ad nauseum. I used to hate it, because it all seemed like they were picking on me and not valuing me for what I was bringing to the table.  I was a hard worker, with experience and loyalty to the company, and I had big ideas about how to make things better if they would just listen. Sure, sometimes things weren’t perfect, but everybody makes mistakes.

Then I started managing employees of my own.

At first I was the exact opposite of “that boss”. I was the boss I always wanted to have: I was a good guy, friendly, warm, open and nice. If there was something that didn’t get done, didn’t get done right, or didn’t get done on time, as long as there was a reason, I was willing to hear it and give the benefit of the doubt, even if it was insufficient on the face of it or, worse, was completely irrelevant. I finally started to understand that when I thought I was being a good guy, when I was being “nice” to my employees, what was actually happening was they were seeing Uncle Sympathy, The Clown Who Gives a Damn. I wasn’t doing them any favors, because what I was teaching them was the wrong lesson: as long as they had an excuse, they would be excused. I had to cowboy up and start teaching the lesson nobody wants to hear:

Fuck you, close.

You want the promotion, the raise, the bigger office and the better title? Guess what, so does the guy standing behind you. The difference between the two of you is that one of you is going to be the guy who talks to me about what he did for me last month, and the other one is going to be the guy who tells me about the five accounts he brought in this morning and his action plan to bring in five more tomorrow.

Fuck you, close.

I’m not saying experience and loyalty don’t count, I’m saying that they aren’t magic talismans you get to just wave around and expect they matter for no reason other than existing. Understand why and how they’re important, and be able to elucidate that in a clear and concise manner.

Fuck you, close.

If you have personal problems, I empathize, but the truth is I don’t care, because I can’t afford to care. After work, when we have accomplished everything we need to do to get the job done I’ll buy you a beer and we can talk it out if you want, but for right now we have a job to do, and neither of us is getting paid to not get it done.


That’s my new mantra. It’s not pretty, but it works. And the first guy I say it to every morning is me.

Lessons from Night Class

As I may have mentioned before, I’m still pursuing my college degree, mostly out of masochism, but also due to a deeply rooted sense of self-hatred. Due to the fact that I have an actual job (unlike most college students and, apparently, most college graduates from the last few years) this means I have to take night classes. (Online courses? Never heard of them. I go to a school whose motto is “Where crushing innovation is tradition.”) What with the commute from work, parking, and the scheduling of such things, my classes don’t start until after 7PM and run until 10PM. This has given me the opportunity to learn some lessons that I believe would translate well into the business environment, lessons that are more implicit in nature. They won’t show up on any tests, but believe me; they’ll be more valuable than knowing who was the first Roman Emperor.

First, respect my time. This covers a lot of ground, but the first example I’ll give is the guy in class who asks a question (usually at the end of class when everyone wants to go home) that is completely irrelevant to everyone but him. For every minute you are speaking, you are wasting a minute of every single other person’s time in the class. Do that in a meeting in a business environment and you’ll be lucky if you’re politely told to “take it offline”, which is a nice way to say STFU and discuss it later. If you’re unlucky you’ll just be told STFU.

The flip side of this is the professor who keeps the class past the scheduled time. Look, I realize you think your bloviating is the most important thing in the universe, and we’re all paying just for the privilege of hearing it. Let me correct that misperception: we’re paying for the degree. Listening to you drone on is part of the price, not a benefit. In a business environment the guy who drones on like this doesn’t get invited to meetings, which is a great strategy right up until you discover you’re out of the loop, not involved in projects, and oh yeah, no longer necessary at this company and there’s the door.

Second, respect my opinions. I’m not suggesting you have to agree with everything I have to say (lord knows I think 90% of people are idiots), but at least hear me out. And don’t just sit there spending the time planning what you’re going to say when my lips stop moving, actually listen to what I’m saying. Process the information, and form a cogent response. Even more importantly, be aware of whether you are actually adding value to the conversation or if you are only speaking because you feel the need to “get your two cents in”. The guy who has to be heard on every issue is the guy who nobody wants to work with, and believe me when I say that there is nobody who is so highly skilled that they are irreplaceable if they are intolerable.

Third, respect the space. I don’t know what it is about night courses, but people come in with food and drinks all the time (too rushed to grab dinner on the way in, I guess) and then leave their trash lying there when they finish. This kind of disrespect for public space says as much about you as your appearance. Whether or not there’s janitorial staff is irrelevant; that’s the moral equivalent of saying “Mom will pick it up.” Act like an adult and clean up after yourself. There are plenty of public spaces in an office, such as meeting rooms, kitchens, and break rooms, and if you treat them the same way as you treat those classrooms, you’re going to find yourself out on the trash heap next to your trash.

It doesn’t take much, but it makes a big difference. Pay attention to these little details, show a little respect, and you’ll be a better student and a better coworker.

The Dance of Shame

Ladies and gentlemen, despite my vigorous protests to the contrary, My Not So Humble Wife insists on informing you about our most time-honored tradition.

On our first date, I quite matter-of-factly told My Not So Humble Husband that he would fall in love with me and that we would end up getting married. This was really meant more as a warning than an aspiration. I just knew. However, I made this lofty proclamation BEFORE we actually moved in together.

Anyone who has moved in with a boyfriend or girlfriend will know that the honeymoon period soon comes to an end in the face of annoying habits, money problems, chore quarrels, and the long disputed toilet seat position. For a while, I wasn’t sure we going to make it. I thought I might end up suffocating him in his sleep with the dirty socks he habitually left on the carpet; or perhaps that I would die an agonizing death of a thousand dull cuts after shaving my legs with his razor… again.

What helped us finally reach a livable equilibrium was the Dance of Shame. After one particularly bad argument, over something I don’t remember, we had both reached that point where neither one of use wanted to apologize but we didn’t really want to be angry at each other anymore either. Sullenly, My Not So Humble Husband approached me in the kitchen and started rocking back on forth from foot to foot with his hands going up and down in the air in time with his steps. I was so surprised I had to break the after argument silence to ask what in the world he was doing. He replied that he was doing the Dance of Shame. I laughed so hard I cried and nearly peed myself. Thus a new marriage coping mechanism was born.

The thing is, it’s really hard to be angry with someone when they are doing the Dance of Shame. It’s just so ridiculous that you pretty much have to laugh. Also, having been the Dancer of Shame on more than one occasion, I can tell you that it is sometimes easier to submit yourself to the Dance than it might actually be to say the words “I’m sorry”.

Once in my classroom of 8th grade students we were talking about conflict resolution and I made the horrible mistake of telling the students about our Dance of Shame. “Do the Dance of Shame! Do the Dance of Shame!” the adolescent monsters chanted. After making the logical argument that I hadn’t done anything shameful enough to deserve the Dance of Shame, they finally quieted down. Two full weeks later, I made a math error on the board. These same students, who can’t even remember to bring a PENCIL to class on a regular basis, somehow remembered about the Dance of Shame. Eventually I had to perform it for them before we could return to polynomials in peace.

So keep the Dance of Shame in mind the next time you need to break the awkward silence of an argument gone on to long, but also BEWARE ITS POWER.

Reservation for “Pity”, Party of One

I used to read a lot of web comics a while ago, back before I had more important and useful things to do with my free time (like writing this fantastic blog for your pleasure and amusement), and inevitably the same scenario would evolve. Whether it took a few months or a few years (and it was usually closer to a few months), the web comic writer would manage to drop a post, miss a deadline, forget to put something up, or just be unable to come up with something, and they would usually substitute some variation on the “sorry, my bad” post.

This post would occasionally be in the form of a quick sketch, although surprisingly often it would take the form of a lengthy written tirade. Sometimes there wouldn’t even be a gesture at an explanation, just an absence where entertainment used to be, and if you were lucky it would appear again the next time there was a scheduled update, with nobody the wiser as to what had happened. The times when an explanation was forthcoming would occasionally be accompanied with promises of making the next deadline (which might or might not happen), and other times there would be the dreaded “indefinite hiatus”.

Almost universally in these instances the artist attempt some sort of justification. The two most common flavors depended on whether the artist in question considered themselves an amateur or a professional, and to be honest I don’t know which one bothered me more. In the case of the amateur, they would usually invoke “real life”. This one goes like this: “Hi everybody, I’m really sorry to do this to you, but the truth is I’m not a professional cartoonist. This isn’t my day job, and I don’t get paid to do this. I do this for fun, as a hobby and as a way to relax, and I just haven’t found it very relaxing lately.”

My special issue with these guys is that in most cases these “amateurs” have a tip jar right there on the front screen of their comic, usually with one of their characters being all cute and begging for money. Now I may not have to pay for content, but the fact is you are asking to get paid for this gig, so to turn around and say you aren’t getting paid is at least a little disingenuous. A lack of success in achieving your goals is not the same thing as not having tried (otherwise “attempted murder” wouldn’t be a crime). Assuming anybody actually did hit the tip jar means now you’re a liar as well.

Which brings me to the “professionals”. This is their day job (or they at least are trying to make it one), and their approach is something like this: “Hey everybody, sorry, I feel really bad about this but I got nothing today. I’, really trying to make a living at this, and I feel really bad about this, and I know I’m really letting my fans down, and I should be doing better, etc.” They then go on to beat themselves up for another few paragraphs. Here’s the hard truth they don’t want to hear: I don’t care. All those lovely “fans” who write nice things like “hey, take the time you need, we just want a good story”, and those lovely things? They are enabling your first world problems.

The next issue I have in both of these cases is the implication that somehow “real life” suddenly “caught up” to them. Sorry, not buying it. Short of jail, hospital, or morgue, there are very few events that you couldn’t have seen coming and planned ahead for. More likely you ran out of inspiration or got lazy, and the sad fact that you spent time writing out a letter justifying that rather than making at least some attempt to put something up speaks volumes about how you feel about your art. Having spent more than a year churning out over 500 words three times a week, I’ve learned something: creating content, even crap content, is hard. Creating QUALITY content? That’s damn near impossible. But it’s the gig we chose, and nobody forced it on us.

Whether you’re doing is as a hobby and you hope other people enjoy it, or you’re trying to make a living at it, it’s your choice. You decided this is what you’re going to do, this is what you’re going to invest your time and your effort in, and that’s what you should do. If you decide to abandon it, at least have the courtesy to leave a note on the door on your way out in case you did have a fan who drops by now and then, but please, no more self-indulgent whining about how you’re just not able to come up with anything today.

If you’re sick or you just don’t have it in you, hey, that’s fine. It happens. Get somebody to fill in for you. Make sure you have a buffer. If nothing else, sometimes you just have to make it up as you go along and hope something comes to you.

Like I just did.