Learning to plant trees

“Did Brad ever tell you about all of the trees we planted?”

So began a story about Brad Giles and a season of planting saplings in the wilds of Idaho. And by the end of the story, I’d again be reminded about the impact one person can make in the world.

I met Brad Giles several years ago at a safety conference. At work, I’d just been selected for promotion to Chief Master Sergeant and days later hired to manage the U.S. Air Force’s safety career field. As Chief is the final military promotion, I was feeling the beginning of a career plateau.

Yet as Brad and I spoke over dinner, he shared with me a vision. A vision to share the vast potential of a career in EHS with military veterans. Veterans who protected our nation would serve again to protect our workforce. Brad ignited a fire in me that evening.

Last night, another Airman emailed me to let me know he’d passed the CSP exam and to thank me for my leadership and example. But it wasn’t my example he was seeing.

It was Brad Giles.

Because while Brad may be an ASSE fellow, former BCSP board president, ASSE director…and much more…what makes him so very special is this fundamental quality.

Brad plants trees.

From all of the trees…thank you, Brad. And happy birthday again.

Coming in level

Coming in level for an aircraft landing is optimal, depending on the design of the craft, to avoid damage to low engines and excessive stress on landing gear.

In new jobs, whether by promotions or by moving organizations, we like to think we can “come in level” too.

But jobs aren’t engineered runways.

Your predecessor made choices. Decisions to accept risk. Some situations were ignored and others were acknowledged but reprioritized. Ideas were developed and either implemented or shelved until the right time. Teams were built, modified, grown, reduced, and in some parts held together by tape and glue stick (find these first).

Have a new job or one on the way? My highest recommendation goes to “The First 90 Days” by Michael D. Watkins. It’s one of the most read books on my shelf and receives the highest reviews in my mentoring groups.

Come in level…but prepare for the runway.


Compounding Errors

Amos Tversky was a cognitive psychologist and a colleague of Daniel Kahneman. Both would change the way we view human behavior today, notably the prospect theory which says people make choices based on potential gains and losses, using mental shortcuts called heuristics, instead of by looking at the final outcome of the choice.

In his personal life, Amos refused to let errors compound. In “The Undoing Project”, Michael Lewis gives a couple examples. If he went to a party where he found people uninteresting, he’d leave without a word. His children remember him taking their mother to a movie and he’d return 20 minutes later. He’d decided that the movie wasn’t worth the time and then return later to the theater to pick up his wife. He said, “They’ve already taken my money, should I give them my time too?”

Whether or not you’d leave your significant other at a movie isn’t the point.

But the story does provide insight into the choice we have; the choice to not continue to error.

The choice you have, once the ticket is bought, not to attend.

To not finish the book.

To say you are sorry.

To change your mind.

When To Burn That Bridge

I have two colleagues with a certain expertise.

With nearly every email, and regularly in meetings, they know just the right words to use and actions to take.

They burn bridges with wild abandon.

Their secret to burned-out shells of relationships? They pride themselves in their ability and find comfort with “getting things off their chest.”

A How-To Guide:

  • Don’t agree with a topic or decision? Shoot off an 8-page email to the highest-ranking executive in the business unit.
  • Read something that can be taken the wrong way? Take it personally and insist everyone is out to get you.
  • Send something and you didn’t receive a response within a day or in a way you approve of? Time to light a match.

But there are times to burn bridges. (I lit one up myself a couple weeks ago.)

Here are three things you should think about before lighting the match to the bridge.

  1. Balance the cost: What is gained by the way you interact or respond? What will the cost be to your team (think bigger than yourself)? Is the issue really deserving of this level of response and emotion? Is the relationship worth more than this single issue?
  2. Know your values: If the situation goes against your values, get involved sooner than later. Burning bridges with people and organizations conflicting with your moral compass is a “must-do”. Strike the match.
  3. Get a 2″x 4″: Pick up a long piece of wood. (No, not for the side of their head.) Put it down on the bridge and walk across. Even if you were right about the issue, there is no shame in repairing the floorboards.

When do you burn bridges?


Depersonalizing Failure

I was sprawled in the middle of the road, my right knee bleeding onto the asphalt.

At 0430 a.m. the running trail was still dark. I had failed to see the curb in the middle of the road and tripped over it, scraping my knee and hands in the process.

I began to rationalize the incident.

Who puts a curb there? Where were the street lights? I’d forgotten my headlamp, but I was in a hurry. My alarm had malfunctioned.

And so it went.

When others fail, we learn. We say, “I’ll never do that”. We look out for curbs that others trip over.

When we fail, we instantly rationalize. It’s not our fault we were speeding, the cops needed to write more tickets that month. We went bankrupt because of the economy, not because of poor decisions we made, right? We blame. We see fault everywhere but in ourselves.

And often the lesson is missed.

To learn from failure, we must depersonalize failure. It’s why learning to fly in a flight simulator works so well. The risks, to the student’s health and ego, are reduced by the environment. It’s also why advances in virtual reality technology, like crane operator training, are so exciting.

My knee still carries the scar from the fall. But by depersonalizing the event, I was able to learn (wear a headlamp) and stop the rationalization.

Be Honest, It’s Not Important

I’d prepared the best way forward. After the incident where the worker’s hand was caught in the machine, I’d investigated and found the perfect machine guard. So I wrote up a business case for the guard and presented it to the boss.

He said we didn’t have the money left in the budget.

I knew what he meant to say…he really meant, “It’s not important.”

Yet as safety professionals we do this too. And by “we” I really mean me.

Every time we say, “I ran out of time” or “I was too busy” or “Something came up and I couldn’t get to it”, we should stop.

Because what we’re saying is, “It’s not important”.

And that’s OK sometimes. Just like not everything can be a priority, not everything is truly important.

So be honest with yourself. How does it feel when you say it? Does it conflict with your values or does it feel alright? If it conflicts, then make it important and deprioritize something else. If you’re OK with it not being important, let it go. Delegate it or simply delete it.

Machine guards? Important. But that treadmill in the corner collecting clothes? Maybe it’s time to be honest.


Losing Hurts (twice as much)

Losing is powerful.

Studies show people perceive losses twice as powerfully as gains (Amos Tversky/Daniel Kahneman).

For example, losing $100 hurts at least twice as bad as earning $100. Or imagine being told you’d won a significant amount in a lottery and the next day finding out they’d called the wrong person! The pain would very likely “hurt” at a higher level than the elation of winning.

How can you use this idea in the coming year to break through to the next level, to achieve a goal you’d previously discounted?

What if you went into your next year, quarter, or promotion period as if your boss was going to take away your current position or title if you didn’t perform well above average?

What would happen if you gave someone a check for $300 that they could cash if you didn’t achieve your goal (finish a degree, lose 10 lbs, earn that promotion, etc.)? (This idea is catching on; take a look at stickK.com)

What could losing do for you? 



“Not My Circus, Not My Monkey”

In Polish the phrase reads “Nie mój cyrk, nie moje malpy” and means “not my problem.”

It serves as a warning that we shouldn’t take on the world’s problems.

But this isn’t about monkeys. It’s about brick walls.

Far more dangerous to your success than other people’s problems, obstacles appear before all your big goals. And the closer you get, the taller, meaner, and scarier they appear. After seeing the brick wall for the first time, you may be tempted to say, “It isn’t meant to be.”

Randy Pausch has another viewpoint. He writes, “The brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something. Because the brick walls are there to stop the people who don’t want it badly enough. They’re there to stop the other people.”

So when you see that wall, smile. It’s not there for you. Or your monkey.


I Waited Too Long

On a recent evening walk with my family, we passed through an RV park where a couple was just pulling in for the night. We said hello and struck up a conversation about their recent travels. As they’d been on the road for 18 months, I asked the man what his favorite part of the trip and if he’d do anything different.

He said, “Key West was my favorite stop and yes…yes, I’d do it differently.”

Pausing, he continued. “I waited too long.” His wife nodded solemnly. “I worked and worked until I got old. Then we started traveling.” He rolled his eyes. “Next time, I’d begin much earlier.”

The error is called sequencing. Thinking we must do this, before that, when the timing will be “perfect”. College, first job, then a stable job, student loan payoff, then kids, then a house, then….

And so it goes. Until, “I waited too long.”

Warren Buffett agrees. Buffet said, “I always worry about people who say, ‘I’m going to do this for ten years; I really don’t like it very well. And then I’ll do this…’ That’s a lot like saving sex up for your old age. Not a very good idea.”

What are you waiting for?


The Price Is Right (Maybe)

The television game show began in 1956 and still airs today. Contestants on The Price is Right guess retail prices of products from cans of soup to cars and vacations.

The show works because most people do not have a good idea of what the prizes cost. From the flashy cars to the cruises, most players end up wildly incorrect about the prices.

But it’s not just television.

We see others with high-level careers, mansions, luxury cars, the latest purse or watch…and we compare ourselves to them. Too often, we neglect to ponder the price. Not the retail price per se…but the price in terms of study, sacrificed social time, multiple failures, hours worked, the loss on privacy, trade-offs in relationships, or even strained physical and mental health.

Psychologists call this imbalance the Comparison Fallacy. We too easily look past our own talents, priorities, and goals and become distracted by the accomplishments of others.

Yes, the benefits may appeal to us, but are we willing to pay the price? If not, then wish the person all the best. If, on the other hand, the cost (work, study, sacrifice) aligns with your goals and values, then redouble your efforts and get busy.

Is your price right?