Nothing’s ever easy. That’s been my mantra for the last decade or so. It’s a statement that I make in recognition of the harsh reality that I can’t do it all, that some things will never get done, and that life’s path will continue to be littered with obstacles. Accept it.
But like a lot of statements we make all the time in our lives, this one deserves some scrutiny. First of all I should ask whether I really mean it, any more than I mean “no problem” when I say that to the writer who announces at the last minute that a story did not get done as planned. Or any more than my “same to you” said in response to the clerk who tells me to “have a nice day.”
As a friend of mine has said, you should keep in mind that people often mean the exact opposite of what they say. The manager of the struggling baseball team who hears the team owner tell him he is “behind him 100 percent” should be worried. The public should be skeptical of the politician who says he had no knowledge whatsoever of the shenanigans carried out by his staff.
And maybe I should question my own belief. Not even “nothing’s ever easy” can be that easy.
Beyond that there is the nagging suspicion that language has consequences. If you keep assuming that nothing is ever easy, then you wonder if you will miss the easy solutions that possibly lie ahead of you.
Years ago I was at a Chamber of Commerce showcase at the Westin Hotel on Route 1, and left early to run an errand back at my house. As I was leaving, a man in the lobby — a casual acquaintance — asked me if I happened to be going back into town. He did not own a car, and he had a meeting he had to attend in 15 minutes. I was happy to give him a ride. On the drive in, I asked him: Did he ever worry (in this pre-Uber era) that he would not have enough time to catch a ride in such a circumstance?
He told me that he used to worry, but not so much anymore. Most people go through life saying they don’t have enough time to do everything they would like to do. He had decided to change his thinking — his mantra was that he had more time than it appeared, that he would have enough time, and he found himself accomplishing more than he did before. As I dropped him off at his meeting (he was early), I thought he had a point.
So can everything be easy? Maybe not, but maybe we can at least approach our problems and challenges in a way to minimize the difficulties. I put my mind to work, hunting for some easy answers to the question: How can we make things — particularly big and challenging projects — less difficult?
Don’t try to be perfect. This is a tall order given that most reasonable people want to do their best in any situation, and no one wants to make a mistake. The other morning I listened to the operatic tenor Bryan Hymel, interviewed by David Osenberg on WWFM radio. Osenberg asked how the singer overcame performance anxieties, and Hymel replied that he consciously used his rehearsal time as productively as he could and went onstage as prepared as he could be. With that in place, he said, “I give myself permission to not be perfect.”
In the field of journalism we all want to get the facts correct every time. Some reporters want every word in every direct quotation to be the exact replica of what was said in a spoken interview. They tape record the interview, painstakingly transcribe the tape (a process that can take hours for every hour recorded), and then present the direct quotations amid a tangled web of ellipses and brackets. Not easy.
The most important thing is the crux of what the source is saying — we can only hope that the most painstaking reporter gets that right. It’s easy to miss it.
Set a goal, but revisit it often. Particularly when you are starting a new project, or moving into uncharted territory, the ultimate destination may not be visible. But you can still take the first step, and it can be generally in the right direction. As you move along, you can change course.
Don’t try to build unanimous support for your goal. This wisdom comes from Walmart, of all businesses, delivered via a recent newsletter from the Stanford School of Business. After studying Walmart’s management style, Stanford people concluded that “top executives need to gather the collective wisdom of their teams, but waiting for consensus ‘can kill you, because speed matters, too.’ The challenge for Walmart, CEO Doug McMillon says, ‘is to get the right few people in the room to make the best decision and get on with it.’”
Don’t have lots of meetings, but meet with a lot of people. Meetings serve their purpose, but they also waste a lot of time. Chances are that during any meeting some portion of the attendees have no interest in the particular item being discussed.
Instead of holding everyone captive to every idea under consideration, buttonhole the people you need when you need them. Remember: You don’t need everybody on board with every item on your agenda.
Be open to new information. Be ready to change your mind. You can do that — you are not a politician.
Ask the experts. You may be tackling a job or facing a problem for the first time, but you can be pretty sure you are not the first person to be in that position. Imitation is a successful form of mastery, or something like that.
Work first with what you have at hand. A few weeks ago I stopped by the Morpeth Gallery in Hopewell and saw an exquisite, life-sized sculpture of a tiger, created by Eric Schultz. Upon close inspection I realized it was made of hundreds of pieces of, well, junk.
The guy in the cubicle next to you might not be a piece of junk, but he may have something of value to you — don’t overlook him as you cast around for a consultant on a particular project.
Let substance dictate style. Week in and week out at U.S. 1 we fill a space on our front cover that is roughly 10 inches wide by 9 inches high. One of these days we are going to receive an image that we believe belongs on our cover but which will be so disproportionately vertical that it can’t possibly fit in that space.
When the day comes the solution will be to modify our cover design, lose the photo in the upper left corner, skip the black band with the reverse type across the top, and then find a way to embed the U.S. 1 logo into that image without losing our identity or diminishing the impact of the image. How will we do that? I have no idea, but show me that image and I am sure an easy solution will present itself.
Bottom line: Don’t be bound by your own rules.
Break big deadlines into smaller ones. This permits you to establish benchmarks along the way. In the case of U.S. 1, we hope that certain sections of the paper are ready to go on certain days of the week. If we have missed our marks on Friday, then we know we could be in trouble on Monday.
Adjust your expectations and standards as deadlines approach. The old country & western song notes that the “girls all get prettier at closing time.” Maybe that’s why I have come to another conclusion: Deadlines are your friends.
Keep it simple. How hard can that be?