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.


Fashion Advice For the Professional Gentleman

While I’m not the fashion horse my father was (I don’t think even Prince is the fashion horse my father was), and I’m privileged now to work in an environment where I don’t need to be, I have been working in and around a lot of companies over the years, and in that time I’ve developed a fairly good sense of what professional attire should be. Sad to say, what I have been noticing over the past twenty years is a distinct decline not in what is considered professional attire (sorry, can’t blame it on Casual Friday), but rather in the knowledge and understanding among so-called professionals of what is professional attire.

With that in mind, I’d like to offer the following modest suggestions to men both young and old about what they might want to consider for their professional wardrobe.

First, own at least two suits. By this I mean actual suits, not a pair of slacks and a blazer or sport coat. The kind of suit that you buy as a complete set, coat and jacket (vests are optional and not particularly necessary). Not that there’s anything wrong with a pair of slacks and a sports coat, and in fact I do believe you should own at least a few pairs of slacks and a couple of sports coats that you can mix and match between them as well, but there’s just something about a suit that makes a comprehensive statement you just don’t get any other way.

Also, I’m not speaking about a hand-me-down suit or a suit you purchased at Discount Suit Warehouse. I mean a high quality suit, the kind that comes from a high end retailer or specialty shop. Save up your nickels and dimes and get them on sale if you can, because these kinds of suits are not cheap (trust me, I know this). Many retailers will have sales once or twice a year, and they will offer good discounts on the outgoing styles. Why do you care that they’re last season’s (or even last year’s) fashions? Ideally you will have these suits for years anyway.

While you’re there, make sure to get the suit tailored to you so it fits properly (if you have a favorite tailor elsewhere you can go there, but I have yet to find one who does the job better for less). Don’t let them bully you into wearing the suit the way they say it “should” be worn. I wear the waist of my pants much lower than any tailor seems to think is “right”, and for years my pants didn’t fit right. Then I finally insisted they simply let me wear the pants the same way while them hemmed them as I did when I got them home, and suddenly my pants fit well. Did they look as good as they could? No, but they looked better than they did, because they were tailored for me.

Pick up a lint brush, preferably two. Keep one in your desk drawer at work and one close to the door at home. Use them. Even if you don’t have long hair or a pet, someone else does; your wife, your husband, your girlfriend, your boyfriend, your roommate, the person in the elevator next to you with the five corgis. Hair, lint, and all kinds of other stuff transfers very easily, and you won’t notice you need a lint brush until you don’t have one; if nothing else, you can be the hero of the day for someone else. If you don’t have one handy when you need it you can fake it by rolling some tape (sticky side out) around your hand and running it gently over your suit. It’s not great, but it’s better than nothing, and people will appreciate that you took a little time for your appearance.

Second, I’ve heard more than one person say that if you want to get attention at work you should dress  better than your position (or better than the other people at your level). This fascinates me, since I’ve always found that the best way to get attention at work is to be good at your job. Dressing “for the job you want to have” as they say is a good way to annoy the people around you, as it does make you stand out, but not in a good way. If you are good at your job and you’re not getting attention for it, you need to find another job.

What I do recommend is dressing better, worse, or just the same as the people around you, if that’s who you are. What people will respond to is confidence: are you comfortable in your own skin? Are you showing up as the person you believe you are, or are you putting on a show? That’s not to say you should dress inappropriately for the work environment, and if you are completely uncomfortable wearing anything acceptable in that workplace, then again maybe you need to think about getting a different job.

Third, make sure you own at least two nice pairs of shoes. Note that there is a difference between “nice” shoes and “dress” shoes. Any kind of shoes can be nice, and even “dress” shoes can be cheap. Don’t buy cheap dress shoes. As I mentioned earlier, every major retailer has sales, and there’s nothing wrong with them. Make sure to get quality shoes that fit comfortably, because hopefully you’ll be wearing them a lot (because you have a good job to wear them at).

Here’s the thing: if you buy cheap shoes, you will spend a lot of time and money replacing them, and you will have to break them in over and over again (which is not fun), and in the long run you will spend as much money on multiple pairs of cheap shoes as you do on one pair of quality shoes. But there’s more: people notice a man’s shoes, especially if he’s wearing a nice suit (like the one I told you to buy earlier). If you wear cheap shoes with a nice suit, people will laugh at you. Women will laugh at you. Maybe not to your face, but I have heard it. And gentlemen, they are not nice about it. Better a slightly worn pair of quality shoes than a brand new pair of cheap shoes.

Once you have your nice shoes, please be sure to take care of them. Don’t stomp through the mud in them, avoid puddles, don’t walk across the grass in them, and please be sure to polish them. Take care of your shoes, because they are quality, and people notice these things.

That’s not everything you need to know, but it should at least get you started.


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On Achieving Work-Life Balance

I was talking with a coworker not too long ago, and he asked me about how to achieve a better work-life balance. The truth is, there’s no silver bullet. There are some strategies and tactics that I’ve found useful, and I’ll share them with you here.

The first one (which I got from My Not So Humble Wife) is to make a list every day when you first get to work of three things you’re going to accomplish that day. Make sure it’s a realistic list; for example, don’t make “I’m going to finish Project X” one of those three things if you haven’t even started it yet and it’s a long-term project. Be aware of how long each list item will take, and set yourself up to succeed. If you accomplish all three things by 10 AM, great! You have the rest of the day to catch up on other things, or else get ahead on other work. If you have to stay until 8 PM to get them all done, then that’s what you need to do. If you find yourself staying until 8 PM on a regular basis, you either need to be more realistic about what you can accomplish in one day, or you need to figure out where all your time is going (usually it’s time thieves, which I address a little more later).

In terms of being able to accomplish those three tasks, honestly assess how long tasks take to finish and budget your time accordingly. Give yourself some leeway; if you think something is going to take 15 minutes, give yourself twenty minutes to do it. You never know when something is going to divert your attention or if something is going to go wrong, and if you always assume the best case scenario, you will constantly be running to catch up to a worst-case world. The extra time you budget will also help deal with those time thieves I mentioned earlier.

Those time thieves I mentioned? You all know who I’m talking about, mostly because we all do it to everyone else. Whether it’s the email that pops up and diverts our attention, the phone call we have to take, or even the person who pops by with “a quick question” or “just to chat”. Sometimes you can afford it, but other times you can’t. Be aware of where you stand on things, and if you’re in the middle of an important project where losing focus will cost you large amounts of productivity, politely but firmly let them know, “I’m sorry, I’m working on a very important project. Is this a critical issue or can I get back to you later?” In most cases it’s not a time sensitive matter, and as long as you follow up with them in a reasonable amount of time you’ll actually improve your reputation for professionalism. If you made sure to build in some extra time for your “three things”, you can also address anything that they believe is time sensitive without coming off as peevish or harried as well.

Another good tactic is to make sure not to schedule out your entire day. Instead, try to schedule out no more than 80% of your day. You’ll need to take breaks, check email, and there will be unexpected issues that come up that will need to be addressed immediately. Schedule time for breaks, but don’t screw around. “I need to brainstorm this project” might sound reasonable, but is it necessary? With that in mind, having a schedule, at least a framework, will help give you structure and an idea of what’s coming. In fact, the further out you can schedule things (whether it be a day, a week, or even a month or more) the more awareness you’ll have of coming events and the less likely you are to be blindsided by something. In my experience most of “putting out fires” is a matter of dealing with things that were foreseeable issues; solving problems before they have a chance to become problems not only saves aggravation, it saves time and money.

You should always know what you priorities are, and know the difference between “want” and “need”. Something you “need” to get done has to happen, without question. Things you “want” to happen are the things you get done with the time you have left and should be the first things to go. Your “need” list is always your top priority. If you cut out all of your “want” list and still don’t have enough resources to accomplish everything that’s left, either reconsider what you believe is a need, or else delegate some tasks or (if that’s not an option) discuss the matter with your supervisor. That’s what their job is, to make sure you’re able to succeed.

If you do find yourself in a position where you are constantly putting out fires and you don’t have an opportunity to get on top of things, the first step is to re-prioritize. Again, your supervisor can be an excellent resource for this. You should always know what your priorities are and in some cases, particularly when you don’t have sufficient resources to cover all the tasks at hand, you need to accept that some things are going to need to fall by the wayside. If you don’t have time to accomplish everything on your plate, again either delegate some tasks to someone else or talk with your supervisor.

I’ve mentioned delegating a couple of times. When delegating tasks, the most important thing to remember is that the goal is important, not the process. Everyone approaches a project in a different way, and as long as the end result is satisfactory, how they got there is unimportant (within reason). Be honest with yourself about the goal; I have occasionally found myself saying “my goal is to have this task done in this way”, when the truth is I was focusing on the process rather than the product. This is likely to frustrate both you and the person you assign the task to, and result in a case where you waste more resources farming the project out than if you had just done it yourself. If having something done a certain way truly is the goal, what you likely have is multiple tasks that cumulatively roll up to a project. Separate the goal from the tasks, and trust people to accomplish the tasks in their own way. Feel free to verify that they accomplished their individual portion, but as long as the work got done right and well, don’t let your attention be devoured riding people while they do the work they were hired to do.

While this may seem like a lot, it’s actually not. What it comes down to is knowing your priorities, planning accordingly, and using your resources effectively. If you can accomplish that much, the rest should fall into place.

This Isn’t an Office, It’s a Warzone

I’ve been privileged to work in and around offices for the better part of the last twenty years, and in that time I’ve developed somewhat of a philosophy on appropriate office decorum. I call it a philosophy because, like most kinds of philosophy, it doesn’t seem to have any place in the world today or really any bearing on the world as it actually exists. But I’m going to share it with you anyway. Attire, attitude, and behavior; made simple, these are the three elements to appropriate office decorum. The subtleties and complexities of each are what seem to elude so many people in the modern American office.

First let’s cover attire, and I chose that wording deliberately. Ladies, I’m looking at you. Hell, I can’t help it, it’s not like you leave me many other options. I have no idea when it became de rigueur to wear the most revealing outfit you can get away with (or can’t…), but believe me when I say you aren’t doing your career any favors. Look at it this way: when you are delivering that presentation you spent weeks putting together, do you want me paying attention to your work or your – ahem − assets? Think about it, because the choice you make will define how you’re viewed for a long time to come.

Guys, don’t think I don’t have something to say to you as well. Just because “Casual Friday” has turned into “I Never Have to Wear a Suit Ever Weekday” doesn’t mean you can get away with murder. Buy a button-up shirt, consider wearing khakis now and again, and make damn sure you actually DO own a suit that fits and looks good, because the day is going to come you have an important meeting and you want to look like you showed up for it. On that note, keep a neutral tie in your desk. It doesn’t take long to put it on, and it dresses up almost any outfit. Even a basic button down shirt and jeans looks better with a tie.

Here’s a couple dressing hints that cut both ways. First, if you aren’t sure how to dress, overdress a little; people will rarely fault you for it, and they will always fault you for being underdressed. Besides, some of the best advice I ever got was “it’s a lot easier to take off a jacket you don’t need than to pull one out of thin air when you do need it.”

Next, LOSE THE DAMN FLIP FLOPS. Yes girls, that includes you. I don’t care how cute they are, they’re impractical and unprofessional. Guys who wear flip flops to work deserve to be hauled off to the nearest stocks and beaten on their improperly protected feet. Grow up, frat boy. Only one step up from this noxious practice is people who wear sneakers to the office on a regular basis. When you own the company you may feel free to wear whatever you want. Until then, try putting on some adult shoes when you leave the house in the morning.

The next step is attitude. When I was younger I used to do some acting, and there was an adage that went something to the tune of “leave your baggage at the stage door.” This is a wonderful notion that was never respected but often should have been, and would benefit the world of business greatly. Because here’s the great big secret of business that they never tell you in school, and I’m going to share it with you right now, so pay close attention: nobody cares. Not a morning person? Guess what cupcake, nobody cares. Boyfriend broke up with you? Sorry sunshine, nobody cares. Feeling hung over from partying all night? Sing it with me in the key of C, nobody cares!

What’s even worse is that most of the time even if somebody seems like they care, they’re just being polite, which gives you the false impression that it’s okay to bring your personal problems to work with you. It’s really not. This isn’t a therapy office, unless you work in a therapist’s office, in which case you aren’t getting paid to be in therapy so please wait your turn. The proper attitude at work is one of engaged interest. Try to show up every day ready to be an active participant, whether you really feel it or not, and give it an honest effort.

Finally, proper office behavior. I could do an entire post on proper (or improper) office behavior and still not cover even the most offensive behaviors. So I’ll just touch on the ones that bother me the most:

Gossip is not a valid means of communication. At best it is confusing and misleading. At worst it is divisive, cruel, and hurtful. If you don’t believe me, ask any girl over the age of five. I’m not saying don’t chat with others, and I understand that some information has to be kept in confidence. But consider it like this: would you say what you just said to anybody who has a right to hear it to their face? If not, then why did you say it?

Use your indoor voice. If I can hear you from down the hall, you are speaking too loudly. If I can hear you from the next room, you are still speaking too loudly. If someone can hear you from down the hall and I am sharing an office with you, you won’t be speaking at all very soon.

Forming cliques. I know some people say this is inevitable, and maybe it even is, which is a sad statement about the nature of humanity. I like to believe that those people just aren’t considering all the facts. For my money a clique is a group of people who shut out others and begin to make important decisions (either socially or politically within the organization) amongst themselves. If there’s no chance for anyone else to get into this group, that makes it a clique. If others can join over time, it’s just folks who have known each other a long time. It’s a fine distinction, but where cliques are poisonous, forming long-term associations gives longevity to an organization.

Careless office romances. Note that I said careless office romances. Truth is any careless romance is bad, it’s just that when you work in the same office you have to run into each other every day, which makes it that much worse if things go south. Not to mention the car pool gets awkward. You can still have romance at the office, just be smart about it.

Don’t whine. Trust me when I say nobody’s job is anywhere near as much fun as you think it is. Even the guy whose job it is to play with puppies all day is probably allergic by now. If you think someone else is getting to do everything you want to do, maybe they are. They also have to do all kinds of things you either don’t want to do or have no idea how to do, mostly owing to the fact that you’re too busy whining about how you don’t get to do the “fun stuff” to bother learning it. There’s also a zero percent chance anyone will want to work with you when their perception of you is the guy who won’t do the things that need doing, but instead will always have his eye on the things he wants to do.

So what is proper office behavior? Put short, do what I did: find someone you want to be and try to be like them. Don’t ignore their flaws, just don’t emulate them. If you ever find yourself growing out of that role, find a new role model. And no matter what, don’t wear flip flops to work.