birthday-cupcakeToday is my birthday. The big 3 – 0. I don’t feel particularly different but 30 seems like a big deal for many people. So, I’m hoping to pause at the this milestone year and reflect a little bit; where I’ve been and where I’m going.

I question whether it’s worth all the effort, though. Goals I made at 20 were a wash, except that I did marry my beautiful wife. She made the last ten years worth it.

In 10 years, where do I want to be professionally? Financially? As a husband and father? In 10 years, my daughter will be getting ready to turn 16. How big does my gun collection need to be? These are serious questions that I hope to answer during the year of 30.

What kind of big, decade goals do you have?

What sparks creativity?

*I’ve had this as a draft for a while. So “yesterday” is over a year ago.

Yesterday morning I read an article in the Wall Street Journal entitled “Tactics to Spark Creativity.” It was enlightening to read what sparks other people to think outside the box. I thought I’d share what works for me and a few things that the WSJ highlighted.

Stepping Away

View from my deck.

Looking up from my deck.

To get me thinking, I usually have to step away from my normal environment. While at the office, that usually means stepping out, playing with machine, grab a cup of coffee, or step outside. At home, I sit outside on my deck when the weather allows.

Whiskey and Radiohead?

Several recent studies suggest that the best route to an “aha moment” involves stepping away from the grindstone—whether it’s taking a daydream break, belting back a drink or two or simply gazing at something green.

One advertising executive developed the e*trade talking baby ads staying up late, sipping whiskey and listening to Radiohead. Sounds relaxing to me.

What sparks your creativity?

Three Mile Island

three-mile-islandThe nuclear engineer inside of me loved this post on the Three Mile Island event on March 28, 1979. Here’s my favorite part:

Suppose in learning to drive a car you are being trained to respond to the car veering to the left. It’s simple enough, simply turn the steering wheel to the right to recover. It is also what your basic instinct would lead you to do, so there is no mental conflict in believing it.

It is also actually reinforced and practiced during actual driver training on a curvy road. That response is soon imbedded as the right thing to do. Now suppose your driver training also includes training on a car simulator training machine. It is where you learn and practice emergency situation driving. After all, nobody is going to do those emergency things in an actual car on the road.

Here’s where it gets complicated. Assume virtually no one yet understands that when the car skids to the left on ice (because of loss of front wheel steering traction), the correct response is to turn the steering wheel into the skid direction, or to the left. This is just the opposite of the non-ice response. And to make matters worse, because no one understands it yet, including the guy who built the car simulator, the car simulator has been programmed to make this wrong response work correctly on the simulator.

So in your emergency driver training you practice it this way, the simulator responds wrong to the actual phenomena, but it shows the successful result and you recover control. Since this probably also agrees with your instinct, and you see success on the simulator, this action is also embedded as the right thing to do. One additional point, if you don’t do this wrong action, you will flunk your simulator driver training test.

You know where this is going, now you are out driving on an icy road for the first time and the car skids to the left. You respond exactly as you were instructed to do and exactly as the simulator showed was successful, and you have an accident because the car responds to the real world rules of Mother Nature.

An investigation is obviously necessary because, I forgot to tell you, the car cost $4 billion and you don’t own it. During the subsequent investigation everything is uncovered; the unknown phenomenon is finally correctly understood, the simulator incorrect programming is discovered, it is uncovered that the previously unknown phenomenon had been discovered before your accident, and your accident was even predicted as possible.

But the investigation results are published and the finding is that the accident was caused by your error of turning the steering wheel the wrong way on the ice. Nobody else is found to have made an error in the stated conclusions but you; it is simply a case of driver error. Do you feel you have been wronged? This is what happened to the TMI operators.

Soulard Market and Customer Service

We found out about 6 months ago that our son has a sensitivity to eggs, gluten, and dairy. We’ve cut them out of his diet and found some substitutes that work well. The kid loved eggs though. We caught him stealing scrambled eggs off his sister’s plate one time and we dealt with the effects for the next three days. Ever since, my wife Christina, has been a “mom on a mission” (her words). However, his sensitivity is limited to chicken eggs. So we’ve been looking for someone to sell duck eggs and have even considered raising ducks ourselves.

We had an early Saturday trip planned to St. Louis a few weekends ago. Christina had found out from a restaurant supplier that a vendor at the Soulard Farmer’s Market sold duck eggs. She was excited about the possibility of finally getting a hold of some eggs.

I walked away a great, practical lesson in customer service from our experience.  Engagement and attitude can make you a winner.

We walked straight in to the market to find Harr Farms. Success! We found duck eggs. My wife was curious about how duck eggs might differ from chicken eggs so she chatted with the vendor for a couple of minutes. He took time to listen and answer her questions fully. We walked away with three dozen eggs. He earned a future returning customer.

It’s a nice market. We took out time walking through, checking everything out. We bought some produce here and there from different vendors. We walked by the Soulard Spice Shop once and remembered we had been looking for some pork sausage seasoning. So we turned around and Christina headed inside.

After waiting in line for 3-4 minutes, Christina was able to speak to someone about the ingredients in their sausage seasoning. The employee pulled a binder out and did a quick search. She responded, “We don’t have it listed.” Christina explained that she was just needing to confirm that it didn’t include gluten. The employee’s response, “If you’re that concerned, you just need to make it yourself.” Her rudeness was confirmed by the fact that the conversation was over. She had an opportunity to sell my wife the individual spices for us to make our own but she didn’t. We walked away empty-handed. She made sure we’re never going back.


Room to Fail

You might remember Gen. Stanley McChrystal. He said a few things that got him in trouble, fired even. I know how that feels. McChrystal shared about his leadership experiences in the military, including addressing the possibility of failure in a TED talk [15:38]. Watch if you have the time.

“Leaders can let you fail, and yet not let you be a failure” – Stanley McChrystal

He talks about a very profound moment in his own leadership journey. He had just completed and failed a military exercise. During debriefing, or as McChrystal calls it, “leadership by humiliation,” a commander gives hime some encouragement and it totally changes McChrystal’s perspective of the exercise. “Leaders can let you fail, and yet not let you be a failure.”

I love perfection. There is nothing more beautiful than a plan executed as designed and reaping the expected result. I can recount numerous times that didn’t happen with those serving under my leadership. They failed at times, at least to some degree. I don’t think I ever did a great job of utilizing the potential available in the failure.

In our culture, we are so eager to move up, so ready to step over those that stumble ahead of us, there is no room to fail. I have been crushed under the yoke of failure this past year. How can we make room for failure in our workplaces, families, and communities? Without making room to failure, we set up a culture that is doomed to never succeed at anything. The fear of failure will cost us everything.

I won’t be afraid. Will you?