Follow that feeling

June 19th, 2007

You’re driving down the road, when an oncoming car swerves into your lane. Before you know what has happened, you’ve braked, steered away from the car and are probably already past it. You definitely didn’t take the time to consciously analyze the situation and make a calm decision about what to do. Instead, instinct took over, and your body almost automatically made the right moves to keep you out of harms way.

Obviously in this situation there is no choice, you can either let your intuition take over or you can crash, but what happens if you let the same force guide you in the major life decisions you face. Looking back on those decisions now, quite often you probably knew the right decision in your gut long before you decided for sure.

I’ve had several experiences so far where a major life decision was decided by that gut feeling, and every time it has turned out for the best.

The first was my college choice. I’d been accepted at several universities, and was visiting them all to make my decision. When I finally got to Northwestern (the last of them that I visited) I walked onto the campus and knew instantly that it was the right place for me to be. It didn’t matter that it wasn’t the school with the strongest program in the area I wanted to study, it just felt right. Later, in explaining my decision to my parents I told them, “There was the right proportion of flannel shirts.” Whether I had a strange obsession with flannel shirts in high school or not, it was my way of stating that I felt the balance there was right.

Fast forward four years, and I wanted to go to grad school. I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted to do, and I thought it would give me more clarity as to where to direct myself in the future. However, because of that, I wasn’t sure where I wanted to go, until one night when I was thinking and decided, “I want to go to school in Australia.” Several months later, I had applied, gotten in, and was on my way to Sydney, all because of a sudden thought one evening. The life experience was invaluable, and even though I may have gone to grad school for the wrong reason, I believe that I learned a great deal about myself through the process, and I think that was more important than the coursework itself.

Finally, I was back in the states and was interviewing for positions at several different firms. I ended up with two offers from two wildly different places. One was a large corporation with tens of thousands of employees, a well established training program and a well recognized name, while the other was a small, British firm with a comparatively minor US presence. The advice I often received was to go with the big name, and have a great start to my career with that name on my resume. However, after my final interview with the British firm I knew that it was the right place for me, and I took that position. So far it has been an amazing experience, and I feel that I’ve had opportunities to grow, learn about many different aspects of the business and help my team transform itself. While the other opportunity might have given me a similar experience, I don’t know if the camaraderie at my current place could ever be matched anywhere else. Plus, who has more fun on a night out than the Brits?

So, to sum it up – follow your gut and trust your instinct. It will often take you to places you never thought you’d find, and even if things don’t work out you’ve always got a good story out of it.

Free (as in beer) money

June 11th, 2007

I’ve had a number of conversations with friends, colleagues, and coworkers, and am continually amazed by the number of people who are willing to throw away free money. Whether it is  money that you won’t see for years to come, or a small amount of cash that will take next to no effort to get, many people will turn down these opportunities. Two basic areas where I’ve met the most resistance are matched 401k plans and regular old savings accounts.

Enrolling in your companies 401k is an easy way to save for retirement, and if your company offers a match, you are looking at an automatic return on your investment that is far greater than almost anything else you could put your money into (often 50% or 100%). However, when I have spoken with my colleagues, some mention that they just haven’t gotten around to it, some say they are enrolled and leave it at that, and others don’t even want to talk about it. Although it perplexes me, I can understand that maybe some of them don’t want to even think about retirement, but I still find it hard to believe that so many of them are missing out on an easy money making opportunity.

Although I am no longer surprised when someone does not have a savings account set up, I still wonder how people can say no when I ask if they’d like money to open an account. Of course, it’s not actually my money, but many online banks, including ING Direct, HSBC Direct, Emigrant Direct, and many others, all offer high interest rates and there is often a bonus for starting an account. They are easy to get started, and it is easy to set up a scheduled deposit, yet many people that can easily afford to save are unwilling to undergo a small bit of effort for a significant reward.

While there are many other ways to get free money (including signing up for some credit cards) so few people are ready and willing to take advantage of them. So take my advice, enroll in your 401k, and put some money in a high interest savings account. If you do nothing else to enhance your personal finance skills, you’ll thank yourself down the road when you see how the money grows.

A financial interlude

June 9th, 2007

Basic finance skills are an area that is all but uncovered in the educational system of America. Fortunately, there are a number of fellow bloggers out there ready and willing to take on the task of educating the masses to the importance of personal finance. Presented below are a few that I find particularly inspiring.

Get rich slowly – JD’s relentless grind through everything financial has impressed many throughout the finance bloggers community. One of the first finance blogs I started to read, I have learned a great deal from all JD has to say.

The simple dollar – Trent’s methodical posting schedule has given me something wonderful to read multiple times per day. With an eye on both finances and personal productivity, and tons of great book reviews, his site is another great resource.

Five cent nickel – Nickel’s site provides another vantage point from which to look at money. As someone slightly older and wiser, I know that much of what he writes will be important to me not just now, but in the future.

So go check them out, see what they have to say, and learn a little.

Inspiring the next generation

June 8th, 2007

I spent a good portion of today at a career day event for rising seniors and recent graduates, as a guest speaker (in conjunction with my father, an HR guy) and as a panelist, and I shocked myself with the realization that I was already comfortable giving concrete advice about careers, interviews, networking and more to a group of recent grads. I’ve come a long way in the several years since my graduation, and I’ve learned quite a bit in that time, but sometimes you don’t realize how far you’ve come until you look back at it, reflect upon it and pass on what you’ve learned.

I really enjoyed speaking about my experiences dealing with my decisions after college, my career choice, and even how I dealt with a set of parents that, at times, could be a little overbearing.

In the first session my father prevented his “do’s and don’ts” of interviewing. The main takeaway was that you should be looking to show what you can do for the company, and not what the company can do for you.The do’s focused on demonstrating how you can improve client service, increase productivity without stifling innovation and increase revenues or find other ways to improve the bottom line.

The don’ts examined several topics to avoid, especially during preliminary interviews. Compensation, whether it is salary, benefits, or a tuition reimbursement program, are generally things that shouldn’t be covered in a first round interview because it often demonstrates that you are more focused on getting something from the company than giving something valuable to them. Another area to avoid was talking about how much you will learn from the company.

One other tip covered was “do your homework” – It is important to know as much as possible about the company you are interviewing with, and possibly the person that is interviewing you. This knowledge lets you speak confidently about how you will fit into the company and what you can bring to the company. Plus, if you can throw in a sly reference to something that you know about your interviewer thinks is important it never hurts.

I joined my father for the tail end of his talk, when he got to the “How to deal with your parents section.” Like lots of grads, I moved back home for a while, but it isn’t easy and several of the recent grads made similar comments. The main takeaway from this section was that parents sometimes need to step away from their roles as parents in this time, and look at their children as if they were an employee that just got laid off. While many pages could be written on this topic, it is important for parents to realize that many of their kids have never had to deal with this type of situation, and that it’s not the right time to nag the child into a job. Instead, parents should help them come up with a reasonable plan of action, and help them execute this plan over time.

After this session there was a quick break for lunch, and then I joined a panel of three other people in their mid 20′s, each of whom had dealt with the uncertainty that unemployment post-graduation can bring. We fielded questions ranging from how to manage the transition between college life and a career, how to know whether a job was right for you, how to go through the interview process, and a bunch of networking tips, just to name a few. (For some other networking tips, see lifeoptimizer’s list here.

Overall I think that most of the recent grads got a lot out of these talks, and although I didn’t stay around till the end of the day (several more talks followed in the afternoon) I’m sure they will walk away from this experience better equipped to handle life ahead of them.

It was a great experience for me as well, as it is the first time in quite a while that I have gotten to mentor others going through the same trial and tribulations that I faced just a few short years ago. Hopefully I’ll continue to get a chance to do a little more of this as time goes on, and I certainly believe that my writing here can contribute a little too.

How an introvert learns to network

June 5th, 2007

I’ve learned over the past several years how to work a room, but it can still be daunting to walk into a room full of unknown people and try to learn a little bit about them while sharing some of your own stories as well. There have definitely been times when I was unsure whether I should even be there, and even times when I considered just leaving rather than face a mass of people.

However, over time I have learned that many people face exactly the same predicament in any given situation – they didn’t know anyone when they walked in the door and were nervous about meeting new and interesting people. And yet, these same people often came away from these events with a number of new contacts, and sometimes good friends.

I resolved to overcome my fears of unknown people, challenged myself to determine what was causing my hesitation and to get past whatever it was.

To start the process, I immersed myself in networking type events. Whether they were alumni events, work related functions, or random groups of people from the hidden corners of the interwebs, I was there. At first, I found myself hugging the corners, not knowing how to break the awkward introduction barrier. Once that initial tension was broken I was usually ok, but I just wasn’t ready to go up to these people and say hello. Occasionally someone would start a conversation with me and it would progress from there, and often this led to introductions to other people, but I still wasn’t making the first contact. These were people who came up to me, just as I wanted to be able to do to others.

I expressed my reservations about going up to strangers to a friend, who gave me, in retrospect, a wonderful piece of advice, “Don’t network as if you live in New York.” I laughed at the time, but have realized that there are so many opportunities throughout every day to speak with people, but through the New York code of silence, none of us speak to each other. I decided I would see if I could start conversations with total strangers, and if I could do it with the people that I would likely never see again I could probably do it at a networking event.

Fortunately, New York has an abundant number of people perfectly willing to talk. They’re called tourists.

Through this Lose Weight Exercise I learned a lot about people’s families and vacations, but more importantly I showed myself that it could be easy to talk to someone and find something in common. Armed with this new knowledge, I went back to the events I had so much difficulty with previously. This time I had a new goal – to talk to a minimum number of people each evening.

While I didn’t always meet my goal, it was often because I found someone so interesting that I didn’t want to stop talking to them. Overall though, I did get to know many new people, made a number of new contacts, and eventually helped to connect several people that might otherwise not have found each other.

By pushing myself to achieve I became a better networker, but also learned a great deal about networking itself. That however, is a story for another time.

Have you been wandering around listlessly?

June 4th, 2007

Every morning when I get into work, I sit down and write out a list of tasks I need to accomplish for the day on a legal pad I keep by my desk. It usually ranges from five to ten tasks, and gives me a good sense of how to structure my day. This list lets me order the tasks to be more efficient, and allows me to construct the day such that one task flows naturally into the next.

I can also add things as needed throughout the day if something new comes in, or make a note about something that will have to be done at a future date. It also helps me to remember everything that needs to get done, because a quick scan at the end of the day lets me quickly see if there is anything I haven’t gotten to. If I were keeping this list in my head, its very easy to let a task slip through.

I also have other lists close at hand, including the various major projects on which I am working, consultants that need to be paid, and issues that need to be discussed, either with bosses or co-workers. Each of these gives me a sense of control over what needs to get done, and gives me a visual representation of which tasks still need to be accomplished. Plus, it’s fun to cross something off the list when it is finished.

Handwritten lists on a pad aren’t for everyone, and there are many other ways to keep a good to do list around. Some people use a small notebook like a Moleskine, which can easily be carried around, and I actually use one of these for my own personal lists. Others use built in software with their PDAs or Blackberries, while others may use an online service such as Remember the milk, Backpack, or even a modified GTD system using Gmail or some other client.

Regardless of how you choose to implement your lists, they provide an important service, and can provide a useful boost to productivity at work and at home.

Four great ways to read for free

June 3rd, 2007

While I am an avid reader, neither my bookshelf nor my wallet could afford to continually buy new ones. Thus, I am always looking for ways to avoid buying a new book. Here are a few of the ways that I’ve managed to fulfill my craving for the written word without sacrificing a lot of money.

1. Borrow from the library: I’m fortunate enough to live and New York, and this I have over 80 branches of my “local” library, but regardless of where you are you probably have at least one good library nearby. I’ve always been able to find something interesting to read at my local branch, and if I’m looking for something specific that they don’t have, then I can always get it in through an inter-library loan. The best part of all is that it’s always free.

2. Pull up a chair at your favorite bookstore: While it may seem strange to some, there is no reason not to use your local bookstore as a place to read. They certainly have a large selection of books to choose from, and often they have comfortable chairs where you can sit and relax. Many of the larger chain stores now even have cafes associated with them. So go, pick out a book, take a seat and enjoy yourself. And if you can’t quite get through the book in a single sitting, you can decide whether to buy it then, or to put it back and finish it up next time you stop by, as long as you can find your place – don’t just leave a bookmark and expect it to be there when you get back!

3. Find a friend with similar tastes: Finding a friend with a similar taste in books can be a goldmine, assuming you don’t both own the exact same books. I’m fortunate enough to have a number of people with whom I can share books, many of whom have significantly different tastes. Between my father, who provides me an endless supply of hand-me-down mystery/suspense/crime novels and various friends that provide everything from the latest award winners to hard science fiction, I have many sources to tap for a new book. Of course, I’m always willing to pass things along to them from my own collection as well.

4. An online source: Nowadays there are plenty of people looking to give away or trade their stuff online (see Freecycle; and Craigslist). However, many people don’t realize that there are a number of online communities dedicated solely to trading books. While I can’t vouch for all of those sites and their members, it’s good to know they are out there, and I’m willing to bet that if you dig deeper you may even find communities that revolve around the genre of your choice.

While these are all good options for free reading, there are some times when you are willing to spend a little to get a book. I’ll detail where I go for discounted books later.

Putting a hobby to work for you

June 2nd, 2007

Hobbies are a great way to spend your free time. They give you the opportunity to do something you enjoy, and should bring you pleasure. But what if there was a way to get more out of your hobbies, or to find a new hobby that could do more than just help you pass the time.

These are a few things that I’ve gotten involved in recently that are able to give something back to me in exchange for my time.

1. Writing: Whether you like to write fiction, non-fiction, short stories, or snippets of advice, there is always a market out there for good writing. This writing can be for yourself, for someone special to you, or for the world. In this day and age it is incredibly easy to get published, because anyone can do it themselves on the web. Personally, I started this blog as an opportunity to push myself to start my writing again. I had been a fairly prolific writer, mostly about my travels, several years ago, but had last the push to write for myself and I’m hopeful that this blog will help me to hone those skills again. The benefits of writing can run the gamut. Some are intangible, such as the ability to express yourself in a way you couldn’t before or to let someone else understand your point of view. Others are more concrete, and many people make money off their writing, either by selling it directly, or indirectly, through advertising or other means.

2. Knitting: While I haven’t taken this one up myself yet, I have attempted a few stitches. The results aren’t pretty so far, but I have gotten numerous hand made gifts from friends that range from scarves to coasters to an ipod cozy. All it takes is a little bit of time and some yarn and you can create a nearly endless supply of handmade goods for both yourself and friends and family. And while you may not have enjoyed that annual red sweater from your aunt when you were a child, you can be creative and give a friend something knitted that they will enjoy. To get started just find a store that sells yarn and needles, and talk to the people there. Chances are they know either a local knitting group that can give you pointers or they may even hold workshops in the store itself.

3. Hiking: I’ve been an avid hiker for years, and not only is it a way for me to escape the city for a while and be relaxed and in tune with nature, it is also very healthy. I get my Lose Weight Exercise and get to see a bit of green (or an endless yellow-brown if it’s a desert hike). No matter where in the world you are, there is someplace to hike close by. You don’t have to have a famous trail in your backyard to get out there. If you need a little help finding someplace to go, try and find a local hiking club that can point you in the right direction. The Sierra Club is a good place to start as well.

While the examples I give may not be for you, there is something out there that you can do to both pass the time and give something back to yourself. It never hurts to try a few things, take what you like best out of each of them, and see what you can come up with. Feel free to pass along any hobbies you’d recommend in the comments, as I’m always willing to try something new.

Breaking up is hard to do… especially with a bad habit.

June 1st, 2007

There are lots people talking about how to change the major aspects of your life, but I haven’t seen a significant focus on the little things in life. Those little habits that bother you, but have not yet convinced you to take the stand to stop them.

While everyone has their own way of dealing with these things, and I hope the next few tips can help you break those unwanted habits.

1. Recognize the habit, and make the conscious decision to stop it. While this may sound like a no brainer, think back to the last time you considered getting rid of this habit. Did you stop what you were doing, and say to yourself ‘I will stop this habit’ or was it just an idle thought that passed through your head. This initial resolve is very important, and without it, many people fail before they even truly begin.

2. Come up with a plan. For some people the best way to rid themselves of a habit is to go cold turkey, and stop right then and there. For others they need to taper down slowly and ween themselves off. Both ways can work, and I’ve used both myself at different times, for different habits. The important part is to decide what method is best for you, and then to draw up a plan to follow it. This can be as simple as circling the date on the calendar when you are going to stop, or as elaborate as drawing up a schedule of milestones.

3. Start the withdrawal process. Once you start taking action, as planned above, you are going to eventually feel some form of withdrawal. It’s normal, and nothing to be worried about. Whether you are looking to kick a serious drug habit or just to stop biting your nails, you will get the urge to go back to your old ways. The important part here is starting your plan and making it to that first milestone, the craving.

4. When the craving hits, relax. Congratulations, you’ve started the process and made it to the point where a part of you wants to give up and go back to the habit. Of course, this is the hardest part, but at this point the most important thing you can do is give yourself time. Take a deep breath and find a way to distract yourself for the seconds, minutes or even hours that it takes to get past that craving. It will pass eventually, but getting there can be rough sometimes. Stand strong! Once you get past it, be proud of yourself. It’s not easy to resist a craving, especially right in the beginning of the process.

5. Reward yourself. If you’ve made it this far, find a way to reward yourself, but don’t use anything that would lead you to slip back into your old ways as a reward. Something token that is special to you can often be a good motivator, and keep you going on the path to breaking the habit. If you have milestones set in your plan, then use those as an opportunity for a more significant award. If not, use anniversaries – weekly, monthly, etc. – as long as it helps to keep you on task.

6. Keep going. You know at this point that you can get past the hold of the habit, because you’ve done it before. Now just keep on progressing and see where it takes you. For some habits, and some people, a month may be enough to feel like you have control, but for others it can take years, or a lifetime of fighting against the urges. Research has shown that it takes about 30 days to make a new habit, and to incorporate it into your daily routine. If only breaking them was that easy.

Hello world!

May 31st, 2007

Errant ranter is live! More to come later as I figure out wordpress…