Saturday, November 20, 2010

Take a Chance!

   Of course I don't mean stupid chances with major risks for minor possible gains, like jumping over canyons in a motorcycle, mouthing off to the gang of bikers at the bar, or voting for <insert personal least favorite political candidate here>.

   But, don't be afraid to take any risks at all.  Even in the security business, they don't try to eliminate it all, just reduce it to an acceptable level.  Life without any risks at all, is so dull and constrained as to be not worth living.  As I've said many times before, the freedom to succeed is meaningless without the freedom to fail.

   So, what risks have I taken lately?

   Last year, I was laid off.  I interviewed with a small defense contractor, who ultimately said they wanted to make me an offer.  As I was in the midst of talks with Google, I told them that I didn't want to give anyone else a firm yes or no, until I had one from Google.  This incurred the risk that Google would take so long to say no, that the contractor would have filled the spot with someone else.

   As it turns out, Google did indeed say no.  (After five rounds of interviews, including flying me out to California!)  And, I had heard shortly before then, that the contractor had indeed filled the spot.

   So, I took a risk, and lost.  Would I do it again?  Heck yeah!  Don't get me wrong, the offer the contractor would have made, would not have been something to turn down lightly.  But a shot at working for Google, even more so.

   Meanwhile, there are often things you can do to mitigate a risk.  For instance, you can buy insurance.  (Okay, technically, that's what the security business calls transferring a risk rather than mitigating it, but let's not get picky.)

   So how did I mitigate this risk?  I kept the search going throughout the whole ordeal.  How did that work out?  I wound up getting hired someplace, didn't like it, and left.  But it paid the bills while I gave it a chance -- a lot better than unemployment benefits!  It also gave me the exposure to modern computer languages that was lacking at my prior companies -- and I believe this was a key factor in getting hired at my current company, which I like very much so far.

   Your turn!  What risks have you taken lately, that you think most people would have been afraid to take?  How did you mitigate, transfer, or otherwise deal with the risk?  How did it turn out?

Sunday, November 14, 2010


   One great way to assess, and probably improve, your skill in something, is to enter competitions.  Some people claim that deliberate competition is evil, "macho", or the turf of chest-beating neanderthals.

   Horse hockey!  I think these people are just afraid of competition themselves.  Getting over such fears is what this blog is all about, so here we go!

   Competition has many benefits:

  • You'll be exposed to the audience/public.  As I've said before, you don't want to let down your adoring fans, do you?  So you're going to do your best... and that often improves your best.

  • You'll be exposed to the other competitors.  At first, their skills will likely be better than yours.  They may have some tricks up their sleeves, that you can observe and learn.

  • Even if you don't pick up on the others' tricks, there will be no shortage of people willing to give you helpful hints for improvement, some of which really will be helpful.  :-)  (Depending on the context, you may need a decent BS detector.)

  • Make it to the upper levels of a competition, and you're likely to wind up with a coach.  That (almost) always helps.

   Take for instance... Toastmasters speech or evaluation contests.  Many people are afraid to give a speech or feedback in front of a small audience like their work group, so they join Toastmasters, a safe and supportive environment in which to practice and gain confidence.  So you'd think that people would jump all over the chance to enter Toastmasters contests, right?

   Nope.  Many people are afraid that they'll look bad next to all those people who are so good at it.  How good?  Well, good enough that they dare to enter contests!

   Don't let that stop you.  Believe you me, I've seen (and even given!) some pretty bad speeches in contests.  Those folks who are up there doing so well, are probably not doing it for the first time.  Their first time, they were probably no better than you.  Maybe worse.

   Ask yourself, what's the worst that can happen?  Most likely, the worst is that you won't do very well.  Okay, fine.  Whoop de doo.  Fact is, you'd do just as poorly in another context.  So what is it really?  More likely, you're scared that people will see you do poorly.

   But ya know what?  People (especially Americans) tend to like the underdog, the little guy, the scrappy contender.  It goes all the way back to David and Goliath.  They won't remember you as "the guy who gave that really awful speech".  Chances are, they're no better themselves!  That goes for almost any kind of competition that people are watching.  No, they'll remember you as the guy who gathered up his courage to compete against the best, to streeeeetch out and reach for the brass ring, to go for it!

   I was originally formulating the ideas for this blog entry during Toastmasters Spring Contest season, when we do the International Speech Contest and the Evaluation Contest.  I entered both, coming in second in the Speech Contest at the club level (BAE Lunchbreak Toasters).  As of the actual writing, though, I had won the Evaluation Contest at the club and Area (42) level, and will compete at the Division (D) level Friday evening next week.

   (Update: I lost.  But I'd do it again.  Since then, I've made a New Year's resolution to enter all my club's speech and evaluation contests.  I'm no longer with BAE Lunchbreak Toasters, but I'm still in Fairfax Toastmasters.)

   (Alternately, you may find yourself in a competition without even trying, due to need for a scarce resource, but that's a whole 'nother story.)

   Your turn to sound off!  What do you like to compete in?  How did you get started, especially getting up the nerve?  How have you done?  What have you learned, especially anything that helped you improve?  Would you do it again?  Have you?

Sunday, November 7, 2010

To Thine Own Self Be True

   There are several levels of daring to be different.  The one I mean, is the one often phrased as "Be yourself".  Some of you might be thinking, "well duh, of course I'm me, who else would I be???"

   But some people sometimes believe that they need to hide their real feelings, hopes, fears, etc., for various reasons.  They may want to impress someone, "fit in" with the "in crowd", etc.

   Sometimes this can be okay, or even good.  Hiding your fear, for whatever reason, can help you face whatever it is you're afraid of.  This is often key to conquering your fear.  Even then, though, you may as well admit it.  At the very least, that makes it easier to get help.

   Often, though, the pretense is all a sham, to no real useful purpose.  You wind up essentially lying to the world, including your friends, family, and colleagues.  Like any other lie, you will not be able to keep it going forever -- you will be stressed by trying to remember what version of the story you told to whom, and you will eventually slip and get caught.  The consequences can vary widely, but in any case, as usual, honesty is indeed the best policy... including being honest to your nature.

   On the other claw, don't take "daring to be different" too far, by being different just for the sake of being different.  That's just as fake, and therefore just as wrong and un-excellent, as being untrue to your nature.

   That said, though, perhaps you don't like your nature, and sincerely wish to change it.  That's a whole 'nother story, which perhaps I'll address in a future post.

   (As a completely irrelevant addition: the first time I recall hearing the title phrase, was on an episode of Gilligan's Isle.  For whatever reason, the castaways decided to do a musical production of Hamlet, set to the music from Carmen.  For many years thereafter, until I read Hamlet and saw Carmen, I associated The Toreador's Song with Polonius's advice to Laertes.)