Thursday, February 27, 2014

The End of Jobs...Hurray?

This appeared in the April 2014 edition of the Mensa publication, The Intelligencer.

The End of Jobs…Hurray? 
by Marty Nemko

By now, everyone knows the unemployment rate severely masks the true employment situation. Not only does it not count people who have given up on looking for work, it doesn’t count the underemployed: for example, college-degree holders with jobs that don’t require a degree, or people working part-time/temp when they’d prefer a full-time, secure position.

Ever more jobs are automated. Bank teller jobs have been replaced by ATMs, supermarket cashier jobs by self-checkout, tolltakers by FastTrak. In the face of increased minimum wage and living wage ordinances, robotic fast-food preparers and servers have been developed: custom burger and burrito makers in California, sushi makers in Japan, cookie makers in Poland. The automated barista may replace that failsafe job—Starbucks barista. There’s a robot bookstore clerk and IBM is developing a robot retail clothing clerk.  Many but not all customers will prefer that to the $10 an hour pushy but often incompetent sales clerk. And retail employers will prefer not having to worry about employees taking sick days when not sick, being bad with customers, and/or quitting soon after being trained—turnover in retail is over 100 percent. Bartending jobs are at-risk. I just went to a dance at a venue where the bartender was a machine: stick your credit card in, pick your drink from the screen, and out it comes, just like from a soda vending machine. Leading companies such as Google, FedEx, and Amazon are investing big in driverless vehicles—bye-bye jobs as taxi drivers, truck drivers, bus drivers, even train engineers. Even home-building is at risk. 3D-printers are projected to be able to print homes out of concrete in under a day—bye-bye thousands of construction jobs.
And of course, there’s offshoring. While politicians keep urging more Americans to major in a tough science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM) field, ever more of those tech jobs are being offshored, notably to India and China, which have a long tradition of valuing science, math, and technology, and populations many times the size of the U.S.’s. Already, there's an oversupply of STEM graduates. Evidence:THIS  and THIS and THIS and THIS.That can only accelerate as ever more work product can be sent over the internet. Ever more companies are figuring, “Why should I pay American wages plus Workers Comp, Disability, Social Security, ObamaCare, paid family leave, Americans with Disabilities Act compliance costs, plus that of ever increasing employee lawsuits, when I can get someone in Asia for a small fraction of the cost? Are American workers really so superior?”

In a TED talk, Dr. Thomas Frey, Google’s top-rated futurist speaker, projects that, by 2030, half of all jobs worldwide, two billion, will be lost. An Oxford University study projects that half of U.S. jobs will be lost just to automation. One could quibble with the percentage but our job security certainly will be at ever greater risk.

Then what will happen?

It’s easy to project a dystopian scenario: mass unemployment leading to mass destitution, armed robberies, and drug abuse to anesthetize the pain. 

But I thought it would be more interesting here to do a thought experiment in which the end of jobs would actually be a net positive for society.

With fewer people earning good incomes, only companies that provide basic products and services will thrive. That will be good for the environment. For example, car manufacturing will shrink and sell only affordable, economical cars. And people will repair and repair their old vehicles rather than buy new. Even if government takes over the airlines, the cost of planes, fuel, maintenance, and personnel will discourage people from flying. Again, good for the environment.

Also, today’s materialistic society tempts people to cut ethical corners to make more money so they can buy more stuff: new car, nicer clothes and jewelry, fancier vacations, live in 3,000 fancy square feet rather than 1,000 serviceable ones. In an economy in which fewer people are working let alone earning big bucks, materialism would be less core to societal values, reducing those pressures to be unethical.

Plus, with people having more time, more people will replace gratification from “stuff” with gratification from learning, creative arts, and in relationships from mentorship to family to involvement in pro-social organizations: from Rotary to SmileTrain to Mensa.

In the meantime
Even if you have a good job, might this column’s look at the future justify reconsidering your priorities? Yes, perhaps do more to secure your employment: upgrade your skills, work a little harder, build relationships with people who can abet your career, consider starting a business. But might replacing a materialistic lifestyle with a more meaningful one be good preparation not only for a scarce-jobs future but for your current life?

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Passing the Baton: The Practical and Psychological How-Tos of Succession Planning

 In today's post on AOL, I talk about how to pass the baton. The fancy term is succession planning.

When you leave a job: because you're fired, laid off, off to another job, or retiring, you want to leave a legacy. That's also true when you're selling a business. In this article, I discuss  how to do that: practical advice plus the often difficult psychological issues. 

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Bah, Foodie Food: The Best-Tasting Foods I've Ever Eaten

I know that many people like trendy food like free-range, sustainably grown, organic grass-fed arugula in a citrus balsamic vinagrette topped with pan-seared sun-dried tomatoes on a bed of whole-wheat bulgar.

Sure, that's healthy but, to my unsophisticated taste buds, most foodie food tastes like doody. 

All right, that's a bit hyperbolic. Let's just say I think it tastes worse than normal food. 

Not to mention, it's expensive and the portions microscopic--It usually works out to about $200 a pound. Lest you think I exaggerate, have you ever been to a restaurant where they serve an appetizer on a vast plate that's empty except for, in the middle, one shrimp? $12.95 for a one-ounce shrimp. That comes to $207 a pound.

To provide a mote of counterbalance to foodie phantasmagoria, here are the best-tasting things I've ever eaten. 

While most are loaded with fat, the consensus is that dietary cholesterol has only modest impact on blood cholesterol, which itself may only modestly increase heart attack risk.  

Calories, however, do count. And most of these yummies have plenty:

1. I love cheese and the best tasting I've ever had, would you believe, is Kraft Cracker Barrel Aged Reserve Cheddar won the gold medal at the World Cheese Competition? I'd give it platinum. And unlike frou-frou cheeses, it's under $4 for 8 ounces and available at any supermarket.

2. Garlic cheese bread. I can't even conceive of anything tastier. Try THIS diet buster.

Simpler variation: a plain 'ol grilled cheese sandwich with tomato or tomato soup. Try making the sandwich with the aforementioned cheddar.

3. Costco apple pie: Better than all the gourmet apple pieces--crisp fresh apples with just the right sweet/tart/cinnamon flavor. $9.99 for a pie that feels as heavy as a bowling ball. Ridiculous bargain.

Of course, it wouldn't be complete without vanilla ice cream. Any will do but I usually go for Breyer's Natural Vanilla. Compared with say, Haagen Daz, it's less sweet, less calorific, is all-natural, and the vanilla bean flecks delude me into thinking it's healthier. See what a health nut I am? Oh and Breyers is less than half the price of those super-"premium," super-priced, super-fattening pints, which are just small enough to tempt me to knock off an entire container in one sitting or standing. (Silly to risk putting that bit back in the freezer, where it would grow ice crystals.)

4. Thai yellow chicken curry at a good hole-in-the-wall restaurant. (You can usually find one on Yelp.) They often use too much fish sauce, a salty brew that drowns out the yummy curry, so ask them to go easy on the sauce, fish sauce, that is.

Now they're saying coconut milk is good for you. If so, does that make this dish, swimming in the stuff, health food?

5. A good croissant. You'd think that a local bakery's would be best but unless you're close to a great patisserie, you won't find any better (or cheaper) than  Costco's: $5.99 a dozen. Or try THESE frozen babies from Trader Joe's. (Only $3.99 for eight minis.)

Or if you want to go sweet, try TJ's also-frozen Kouigns Amanns. They're to die for, hopefully not literally. (Just 3.99 for 4.)

Noting my touting of Trader Joe's and Costco stuff, I feel the need to reassure you that neither TJ's  nor Costco is paying me a penny to swoon over their products. Actually no one has ever offered me a penny to swoon over anything.

6. A crisp Fuji or Jazz apple. Get around the healthiness by enjoying the apple with that Kraft cheddar or your favorite blue cheese. Mine is--you guessed it--Trader Joe's Cave-Aged ($6.99 a pound.)
7. While I'm, for a moment, thinking healthy, I love good corn on the cob. Yeah, I know, it's high in carbs and sugar. Make it worse by bathing it in butter.

8. Last and weirdest, I love sliced bananas in nonfat plain yogurt, perhaps adding cinnamon. At least it's healthy--unless you're a vegan, who insists dairy is death.

Charitable Giving: Principles and Practices of Cost-Effective Philanthropy

As I get older, I think more about the wisest approach to philanthropy, to charitable giving.

I've settled on two basic criteria:

1. Maximal societal benefit for the dollars expended, including ripple effects.
2. Funding something wouldn't otherwise get funded. 

Here are initiatives meeting those criteria that I've funded or considered funding:

A prize
I have written previously about a prize I created. I prefer prize to grant because a prize motivates a number of people to work toward the goal I set. In my case, I set up a prize for the best doctoral dissertation leading to understanding the biological basis of cognitive functioning. I like that topic because while it has great potential to benefit humankind, for sociopolitical reasons, it's difficult today to obtain funding for it.

A challenge prize
Since then, I've considered a perhaps more potent related approach: offering a prize to the individual or group that first meets a specific challenge.  So, taking the above example of trying to further our understanding of the biological basis of cognitive function, I've considered Dr. Richard Haier's suggestion: offering a prize for the first individual or team that is able to predict g (a measure of reasoning ability) based on a brain scan or the person's genome. 

Alas, I don't think I can afford to make the prize big enough to motivate a team to redirect its efforts to that issue. I may yet try it with an affordable amount. If no one meets the criterion for winning it, I've lost only the time and administrative cost of publicizing the prize's availability.

Giving to a political candidate or party
I also thought about donating money to a political party or candidate. We are in an era of growing government power, so donating to a party or candidate could significantly affect the  country's direction. Again, alas, I don't have enough money to move the needle even slightly.

Funding a meritocratic rather than egalitarian cause
My current favorite idea is to fund an after-school and summer program for high-ability (although not necessarily high-achieving) kids who live in a blue-collar or lower-middle-class area. Here's how that idea meets my criteria:

America has moved heavily from merit-based allocation of resources to an egalitarian "redistributive justice" approach. Hence, in the schools, especially the public elementary schools, fiscal and human resources have been reallocated from programs for bright and gifted students to the lowest achievers. Today's priority is to close the achievement gap.

Yet I believe that, ultimately, the greatest societal good will accrue from prioritizing as they say, "the best and brightest." Kids with high cognitive ability (reasoning skills, fast learning ability) are more likely to cure cancer, govern wisely, indeed develop more effective approaches to closing the achievement gap. Just as a triage medic in the battlefield is trained to allocate the most resources not to the sickest but to those with the greatest potential to survive, I feel that allocating significant resources to high-ability students is wise--We all know brilliant failures, people who fail to live up to their considerable potential.

It's probably not optimal for me to fund programs in a high socioeconomic area: The schools have a high-enough percentage of high-ability kids that even mainstream instruction may do an acceptable job of meeting their needs. And wealthy parents have the wherewithal to supplement.

Nor do I feel it's optimal to donate my dollars to the lowest-income areas. There, the problems faced even by their high-ability kids tend to be sufficiently multidimensional and intractable that I fear my dollars wouldn't make the biggest difference. It strikes me--and I'm relying not on data but only my perhaps flawed logic--that my dollars will likely make the biggest difference by focusing on schools with a high percentage of lower-middle class people, especially those with a good percentage of new immigrants who were at least middle-class in their home country.

I'm thinking that the wisest point of entry is a lower-middle-class school district's after-school and summer program. There, egalitarian pressures may be more moderate, although I'm not sure. I plan to investigate.(Update: I've since supported the creation of Camp Think, a summer program in Napa run by one of the district's best teachers.)

Donating time

Of course, one can give charity not just with dollars but with time. I've chosen to make writing--for example, this blog--to be my charity of choice. I like writing and like to think that my posts give significant free help to people--maybe even including this post. 

So now we turn to you. Is there anything in this article that makes you clearer about what you might want to donate your money or time to?

A New Idea for a Great and Easy to Create Summer Camp: Camp Think

Here's an advance look at a short piece that will appear in the Mensa publication, The Intelligencer:

Camp Think
by Marty Nemko

There are camps for sports, arts, science, and religion. Why not a camp that focuses on improving thinking skills, a Camp Think?

It could contain such activities as:
  • a camp-wide effort to develop a plan to solve a societal problem, for example, substance abuse. The resulting White Paper could be submitted to an appropriate local, state, and federal official.
  • A debate on such issues as: Should taxes be raised?  Soda banned? Marijuana legalized?
  • Contests: Which team (and/or individual) can make the robot that wins a 20-year dash? A rocket that flies highest with parts that cost under $50? Develop the best idea for a reinvented elementary school? Win a logic-problem quiz show? Create the best skit? Museum exhibit? Develop the best improvement for next year’s camp?
  • Because life isn’t just about thinking, there would be time for songfests, sports, talent shows, storytelling, and yes, even traditional camp arts and crafts--I still fondly remember learning how to make a lanyard using the diamond and box stitches.
None of these require fancy facilities. You could have a small day camp in your home, a spare room in a church, or in your apartment complex’s community room.

If you’re looking for something to do this summer, you could do far worse than run a one- or two-week summer day camp for at least a small number of kids.

How to Control Procrastination: A Compilation of My Best Ideas

Update: For those of you who tried to click on the link below and it didn't work, I believe it's now fixed. Try it again.

A reader, Jeremy Fisher, flattered me by offering to, for free, convert some of my work into ebooks. He started with my writings on procrastination. HERE it is. It is free.

If enough people click on it to justify the time it would take him to assemble additional ones, he's offered to do that. Thank you so much, Jeremy.

And if you have a suggestion for what topic of my writings you'd like to see distilled into an ebook, feel free to suggest that by commenting below.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

In Search of Paradox

Update: 3/31/14:  Today, this article was  published on

I'm reading the book, What Should We Be Worried About?: Real Scenarios that Keep Scientists Up at Night. It consists of 100 top scientists' few-page explication of their greatest fear.

One of those essays, Amanda Gefter's, made me stop reading to write this blog post. It raised an issue that will change the way I think about how to identify and solve problems.

It touts an approach to research: identify a paradox and try to explain it. The example she used was in basic physics, of which I know little. So here, I try to apply that method to a field I know something about: human behavior, especially as it pertains to career, education, and health.

Here are four such paradoxes and a proposed resolution for each. I believe they stand up logically and thus warrant empirical study.

Sometimes, we're motivated more by criticism than by praise.

One of educational psychology's core principles is to emphasize praise over criticism. The theory is that praise gives feedback and builds self-esteem and thus motivates the recipient to repeat the praised behavior and to make further efforts to improve.

Yet how often have we heard that a person took on a challenge only when told, "You can't do that." I recall, for example, a client who said that only when a high school counselor said, "You're not college material," did he decide to work hard at school--he wanted to prove the  counselor wrong.

A possible resolution of the paradox lies in there being a hierarchy of motivators: Yes, praise is a motivator but being told, "You can't" is often stronger. Why? Because it's hard to accept that you're inadequate, a loser. In contrast, praise, while motivating, also engenders complacency. The recipient can't help but relax a bit: "Okay, I'm good enough at least for a while." Perhaps that partly explains why Asians, with a culture that emphasizes self-effacement more than praise, on average, have the lowest self-esteem, even though their average achievement is the highest.

Heart attack victims quickly return to their bad habits

Ninety percent of coronary bypass patients are, within two years, back to their old fat-, smoke-, and/or stress-filled ways.

Perhaps they're not convinced that retaining the changes will significantly-enough delay another coronary event. Or they believe their life is bad enough that even if reverting to their unhealthy behaviors shortens their life, the pleasures would be worth it.

A possible resolution may be for patients, perhaps with the help of a counselor, to ask themselves about each of the above. Consciously considering those could make some patients at least moderate their behavior. Perhaps even more potent, the person might look for reasons to live: the joys of grandparenting, nature, music, work, whatever.

Employers often knowingly hire a worse employee than necessary.

Employers are ever more focused on cost-cutting: reducing training budgets, expense accounts, anything that doesn't directly build the bottom line. Yet in hiring, an enormous expense, they often throw cost-effectiveness out the window. 

The Internet makes it easy to do a worldwide search for the most cost-effective employee. Yet many employers cast a narrow net and worse, too-heavily base hiring on looks, pleasant personality, etc.

The paradox may derive from the fact that, for many hirers, sexual attraction, the drive to feel superior, and/or be liked trumps their caring about the bottom line. The boss loses nothing by cutting expense-account budgets, but hiring the most cost-effective employee often means hiring someone less attractive and sycophantic and who is smarter and harder-working than s/he is.

A partial resolution may reside in making hiring decision-makers aware of that tendency. Of course, that won't work with hirers who, even if so aware, care more about personal gratification than the organization's success. At least a small percentage of that category of hirers might be helped by asking them the foundational and likely guilt-inducing question: Considering what's good for your career, your coworkers, your organization, and for society, how important is your pleasure versus the organization's products and services being better?"

Many people would rather suffer the severe consequences of long-term unemployment than to accept a low-status job.

Many unemployed people whose most recent job was white- or skilled blue-collar won't take a job that is "beneath them." They'd rather be unemployed than, for example, work as a hotel room cleaner. 

Perhaps that derives from their thinking that if they take such a job, they'll be permanently stuck at such a job: They'll come home tired from work and lack the energy to look for a better position. Besides, their resume will indicate that their most recent job is hotel room cleaner. That's unlikely to make their resume rise to the top of the stack for a middle-class job. The resistance may also derive from fear of embarrassment--having to tell spouse, family and friends that they've gone from white-or skilled blue-collar to manual labor.

A possible solution might be to first acknowledge to the person that such worries are understandable but that they may be sufficiently mitigatible to justify taking such a job:
1. Let your supervisor and the hotel general manager know you're eager to be promoted and ask what you need to do to make that likely.

2. Defer posting that low-level employment on your resume for a few weeks. Longer than that gets increasingly dishonest. Use that time pressure to make yourself devote a few hours a week toward finding a higher-level job: 

Contact everyone in your near and distant network, cold-contact employers that are at least one notch higher-level. For example, if you're a room cleaner at a crappy hotel, drop in on the manager at the Ritz-Carlton and ask for a good job but say you're willing even to be a room cleaner: Better to be a room cleaner at the Ritz-Carlton than at a fleabag.

3. Reduce the embarrassment by not telling family and friends about the job or if necessary, explaining only that you've taken an interim job and are working hard to find something better.

Is there a paradox in your field you might try to resolve?

Friday, February 21, 2014

An Ode to Discipline

Discipline, duty, efficiency, restraint, hard work, soberness.  

We wave away such words as puritanical anachronisms, out of touch with newer values: find your passion, do what feels good, life's short; eat dessert first! And the "progress" accelerates:
  • State-sanctioned lotteries and casinos have burgeoned despite their predominantly hurting the poor, who can least afford to lose. The ultimate in regressive taxation.
  • Two-thirds(!) of workers take sick days when not sick.  Twelve percent said they took sick days just to watch March Madness! That's so societally accepted that corporations aren't embarrassed to push their recreational product by telling people to take a sick day. For example, the ad below was sponsored by a consortium of Tahoe hotels and casinos, the one below it by the Weather Network.
    The cheat-if-you-can ethos is yet one more reason  employers hire as few people and automate as many positions as possible.
  • Worst of all has been the increased use of mind- and body-damaging drugs. And now, a majority of Americans favor legalizing pot while almost no one (I'm an exception) advocates banning tobacco or even alcohol. They have long devastated humankind but adding wide use of pot, coke, heroin, meth, and party drugs I can't even name, would cause enormous additional damage to health (disease and traffic accidents,) to families, to workplaces. I have written an essay providing a mountain of evidence that legalizing "mere" pot is a nightmare for America. I challenge you to make a stronger counterargument.
We now have a half-century of experience with Stones/Dylan/Beatles/Grateful Dead-inspired libertinism, the permissive society. Are we so sure the permissive ethos has been a net good? For example, while of course, some young people have an excellent work ethic, millions of others will accept only a fine or slacker job, or make minimal effort to find any job, and instead hang out on their parents' sofa and play video games or watch soap operas, perhaps getting high. Their parents and especially their grandparents don't begin to understand such a lack of work ethic and neither can I.

The world would be far better if we all accepted that hard, honest work is not an option but a societal, even cosmic, duty--even if the job is far from ideal. True, there are no longer enough good jobs to go around but there are enough acceptable jobs for all but the weakest employees. And yes, a job as dishwasher, factory worker, sewage-treatment plant worker, or hotel cleaner is--with a reasonable employer--an acceptable job. It seems cosmically wrong for able-bodied people to reject low-level work in favor of letting a family member or the taxpayer pay them for not working.

Lest you wonder if I practice what I preach, no I never worked in a sewage-treatment plant but I was a bookkeeping clerk with a shared desk in Harlem, for two years worked the night shift as a New York City cab driver and, to this day, at almost 64 years old, work 60+ hours a week, at least half of which for no pay. For example, this is my 1,244th blog post, all carefully written and edited. I just finished editing it after midnight.

Yet some people would rather let the taxpayer support them  for 99 weeks than accept a mediocre job. I think little of such people.  

As magnificent as is Beethoven's Ode to Joy, I believe that at this stage in society's evolution, we might do better to listen to an Ode to Discipline.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Days of Our Work Lives: Part III: Adam's Saga. Episode 11, the final episode: Do Who You Are

Part III: Adam's Saga

Episode 11 
Do Who You Are

In the previous episode, Adam accepted his first optometrist job, joining the clinical and research team at the VA hospital in Palo Alto, California.

Patient visits being quite structured made it easier for Adam to display the necessary social skills. But even more key to his success, he customized his job to fit him. For example:

Some children's dentists, at the end of an appointment, give the child a small toy. Adam adapted that to his optometry practice. Whether child or adult, at the end of an appointment, he asked, "Would you like me to play a song for you on the keyboard?" 

In the years after being Dr. Van Doren's student assistant, Adam didn't learn much more about penetrating eye injuries but having the degree and experience made him perceived as an expert. A show-off from early childhood, Adam thus was able to land himself public speaking opportunities, first at local chapter meetings of the American Optometric Association, then at its national conference. 

Adam's talks were more interesting than the typical academic presentation. For example, instead of just flowchart models and diagnostic checklists, his Powerpoint slides included ones like the one on the right.
fish hook in eyeball

And rather than just citing statistics, Adam told stories, remembering that in his own education, stories made the biggest impression, for example, the Obama Messaging Unit story and the Pope and Mussolini story.

With dozens of optometrists attending each of his training talks, Adam indirectly saved thousands of patients' eyesight. 

Adam had his talks video-recorded, then edited to two minutes of nuggets, and uploaded to YouTube. Then he sent the link to lecture bureaus. One chose to represent him and got him dozens of speaking engagements at $10,000 to $15,000 a pop. Sure, he keynoted veteran events but also anti-war festivals, general surgery conventions, even a fisherman's expo.

Adam always gave credit to Van Doren and--with Harry's permission--pointed out that he had Asperger's Syndrome yet still made an amazing contribution--"Dr. Van Doren is an inspiration to all of us who are trying to succeed despite a serious problem."

To ensure his heart didn't harden as do many successful professionals, rather than taking standard vacations, Adam spent two weeks each year volunteering for Unite for Sight.

And throughout the year, Adam donated a few hours a week to the Lions, a Rotary-like organization that recycles donated eyeglasses to the poor, worldwide. He felt the need to rebel from his mom who continued to be active in Rotary but his rebellion didn't take him further than another service club.

Part III of Days of Our Work Lives: Adam's Saga, ends with Adam in his optometry office, fitting Ben for bifocals and writing a prescription for Susan: "Too young for bifocals." He had finally developed social skills. 

I am now working on Part IV: Linda's Story. AOL plans to publish it and may require that it be original to AOL so, at least for now, I can't post it here. I'll let you know if and when it's available on AOL. 

Days of Our Work Lives: Part III: Adam's Saga. Episode 10; Schmooze or Lose?

Part III: Adam's Saga

Episode 10
Schmooze or Lose?

In the previous episode, just before Dr. Van Doren was to give the most important talk of his life, he had a panic attack. He begged Adam to pinch-hit, which Adam did. And the result was two job offers.

Because Adam's talk was on war-caused eye injuries, both offers were from the Veterans Administration. Yet the jobs couldn't have been more different.

One job was as the only  optometrist at the VA facility in Clarksburg, West Virginia. As the only optometrist there, he'd get experience with the full range of cases but little support. The other job was to join the team of clinical and research optometrists at the Palo Alto, California VA Center.

While Adam was unofficially offered those jobs on the spot, of course, government requires a long application and review process. He was glad for that because it would give him the opportunity to vet them while they were pretending to vet him. 

So Adam peppered the interviews with, "Why did the incumbent leave?" "What's the workplace culture like?" "Every boss is different. Would you tell me a little about you?" and "Would I get a chance to work on penetrating eye injuries?"The interviewers' answers reinforced Adam's preference for the Palo Alto job. 

When Adam received the formal job offer from Palo Alto, he asked if he might come in to the workplace to iron out the details. That's a subtle way of letting the employer know he wasn't necessarily going to accept the first offer. Even in government, there's often flexibility in pay. Negotiating in person also gave Adam a chance to see if the workers seem content? Is it a cube farm so loud no one can think? 

There, Adam also hung out in the break room and asked employees, 'I've just been offered a job here. What's it really like working here?" Of course, not everyone felt they could be candid, but he got a feel simply by watching their eyes and listening to their tone.

Happily, he accepted the Palo Alto offer. Ironic, Adam had so planned everything to land a job. Because he was laser-focused on being a VA optometrist:
  • When assigned a paper, he'd often ask the professor if he could substitute a topic related to his career goal. Usually the professor would agree.
  • He made sure his fieldwork and internships were at VA hospitals.
  • He developed a close relationship with a professor who could open VA career doors.
Yet, in the end, it was the serendipity of that professor having a panic attack at the right moment that got him his job.

Alas, the deal wasn't quite yet done. Understandably, the offer was contingent on his completing his O.D. degree. Well, six weeks before he was to complete the last requirement, his internship, he received an evaluation: "Technically excellent but deficient in patient-relations." Unless he improved that, he would not graduate.

Adam's lifetime bugaboo would now destroy him far more than ever. Panicked, he phoned home. Ben, not fully believing what he was to say but needing to offer Adam some realistic hope said, "My social skills improved 100 percent just by reading an old book, How to Win Friends and Influence People, which has sold 15 million copies. The book boils down to: Focus on other people's needs and make them feel good about themselves."

Susan asked, "Isn't that manipulative?"

Ben said, "Consciously or not, we're always manipulating: When I try to convince you to go out for Thai rather than Chinese, when you try to get me to be kinder to you. As long as the goal is ethical, there's nothing wrong with trying to influence people."

Eager to grasp at anything quasi-reasonable, Adam now asked every patient things like, "I'm really here to serve you. How can I be of help?" and "So tell me about yourself." He'd listen intently and pleasantly, and follow-up with, "That's interesting. Tell me more."

That simple approach made enough of a difference.

At graduation, Van Doren handed out the diplomas. While everyone else just shook his hand, Adam, who is far from a hugger, couldn't resist slamming him with a big bear hug. The audience, especially Ben and Susan, cheered.

Ben whispered to Susan, "Now if he only had a girlfriend."

The next and final episode of Days of Our Worklives: Part III: Adam's Saga is HERE.

Days of Our Work Lives: Part III: Adam's Saga. Episode 9: A Good Panic Attack

Part III: Adam's Saga

Episode 9
A Good Panic Attack
In the previous episode, Adam was intrigued by a speaker at the Future Optometrists Club: a professor at the university, Harry Van Doren, who was an expert on penetrating eye injuries...and a person with Asperger's Syndrome, high-functioning autism.

Intrigued because of his own social awkwardness, Adam went to Van Doren's next office hour.

Adam began by saying that he was fascinated with Van Doren's research. That was all Harry needed to go off and running for 15 minutes without a breath, in that mumbly voice and without making eye contact.

Adam didn't understand half of what Van Doren was saying but didn't want to sound stupid or make him feel like a poor communicator, so when Harry came up for air, Adam didn't ask for an re-explanation. He simply said, "Fascinating," whereupon Van Doren finally looked at Adam: "How'd you like to help me?"

Adam said, "How in the world could someone like me be of help to you, Dr. Van Doren?"

"Call me Harry. You can teach me how to be a better presenter. Just the way you've communicated with me here and at the Future Optometrists Club meeting showed me you're a better communicator than I am. I'm so bad that I usually get a panic attack before speaking. And it's getting worse, not better."

"Why don't you get a professional speaking coach or some professor?" 

"I'm a little embarrassed to. And actually, I'd feel more comfortable with a student, with you. Adam, I have the biggest speech of my life coming up in three months at the World Council of Optometry Convention. I need your help."

And for three months, Adam sat with Harry an hour a week, mainly praising, occasionally reminding him to speak up or not mumble. As Adam gained confidence, he dared go a little further: "Do you think you need to add an example here?" or "Do you think there's too much on that slide? Maybe people need it simpler. Or at least I need it simpler."

Instead of getting defensive, Harry said, "Good! I need feedback like that. I'm so close to the research, the most complicated thing seems obvious to me."

At the conference, being with the socially terrible Harry somehow made Adam feel more confident about doing the schmoozey things he knew he should do. For example, he trolled the exhibit area and came a bit early to sessions to initiate conversation with friendly and influential-looking people. His standard opener: "Hi, my name is Adam Sapian. I'm in my final year of optometry school. This is my first conference. How about you?"

Right before Harry was scheduled to speak, he took Adam to an empty meeting room, closed the door, and rehearsed the speech one more time. Harry was more nervous. You could feel it. So Adam gave no suggestions; he knew his job now was just to calm Harry down: "You know more about this than anyone in the world. You'll do great. You're the king!" Harry laughed but his face was pale. Harry looked at his watch and said, "Showtime."

And off they went to the grand ballroom. Harry quivered, "Adam, you sit here, right where you told me I tend to look: a few rows back and just to the right of center. Seeing you a lot will calm me down."

At that moment, the introducer said to the packed ballroom, "Ah, here is the man of the hour. Get up here, Harry!" 

Harry shakily climbed the three stairs to the dais. And then, to the audience's surprise, he turned around, raced back to Adam and whispered "I can't do it. I'm having a panic attack. A bad one. Really!" 

"Harry, three deep breaths. You can do it."

"I can't. Adam, you do it. You've heard me do it a 1,000 times. Please. You have to!"

And without waiting for an answer, Harry stood up and, now relieved that he wouldn't have to give the talk, said in the most authoritative voice he could muster,

"It's important that we in the older generation give our young students a chance to shine so I've asked my star student, Adam Sapian to give the talk. He's fully prepared. Please, as you young people say, "Give it up for Adam Sapian!"

And the audience indeed did "give it up for Adam Sapian." Harry's mini-speech had touched everyone.

Adam had no choice. "Okay, Harry, give me your note cards." Adam rose from his seat and, in his ADHD way, ran up the stairs to the dais, and on the last step, tripped and fell onto the dais, whereupon his contact lens popped out." 

"God, my lens popped out!" And instantly, five eminent optometrists and one clumsy optometry student were all on their knees looking for a contact lens. Adam thought, "Ben was right. I would lose my contact lenses."

Fortunately, someone found the lens and, from there, it was smooth sailing. Adam did a creditable job and whatever insufficiencies were more than compensated for by the moment's poignancy.

Adam ended the talk with, "Of course, I couldn't answer your questions anywhere near as well as Dr. Van Doren can. Dr. Van Doren, do you want to take questions?" And Harry did, more poised than he had ever been in his life.

Afterwards, Adam had a longer line of people waiting to talk with him than did Harry. One was the vice-president of the American Optometric Association who asked if he'd be the student member of the speaker selection committee. Two others made him an even better offer: a job!

But which to pick?

The next episode is HERE.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Days of Our Work Lives: Part III: Adam's Saga. Episode 8: The Benefits of Membership

Part III: Adam's Saga

Episode 8
The Benefits of Membership

In the previous episode, Adam went off to college, having broken up a perfect relationship. His intuition was that he was meant to devote himself single-mindedly to career.

When he arrived at college and saw everyone hooking up, platonically and otherwise, part of him felt should join in. But most of him wanted to resist his parents' and society's urgings to be more social. 

On the other hand, he was aware his lack of social skills had already hurt him. Although he was the better musician, a more social person was chosen to be the Skit! musical director. Although his platform was far wiser, a more social person with a silly platform was elected treasurer.

He decided he needed to make friends and thought the easiest way would be to get built-in ones. So he rushed six fraternities--and was rejected by all six.

He figured that was another sign he should just throw himself into his schoolwork. He did so and did fine except, ironically, in science courses, where he struggled just to get B's. That resurrected his old self-doubts that came from his having gotten a D in Algebra I in the 8th grade.

That also tempted him to find an easier major than biology, which as Ben had told him, was no longer about fuzzy animals. It mainly was math, hard math. And those mathy science courses were made especially hard because they were often taught by foreign professors who spoke poor English and who somehow assumed his students were natural whizzes like they were. 

Adam was additionally tempted to change majors when he took a history course. He found it far more fascinating than stochastic processes or topological algebra. He loved stories like the one about Pope Pius XI who, failing, had taken to bed. But he wanted to make one last speech--denouncing Mussolini's aligning with Hitler, but in case he was too weak to, he ordered 350 copies of the speech printed. Indeed, he died before he could make the speech. Mussolini, afraid the printed speech would get distributed, went to a cardinal he knew in the Vatican who had been a close friend of the Pope and convinced him to burn the 350 copies. When the next Pope was named, the one selected was none other than that cardinal. And in a feeble attempt to hide his betrayal of his friend, the cardinal took his name: Pope Pius XII. 
That was a lesson Adam wanted to never forget: Question authority, no matter how high the office.

Before deciding to change majors, he figured he'd go to one meeting of the Future Optometrist Club to see what they thought. And lo, there he found some kindred spirits. Sure, some were socially savvy but more were awkward like him. And when he asked the guest speaker, the head of a large optometry practice, if Adam's having struggled in the science courses meant he'd be a bad optometrist, the speaker laughed and said, "Sometimes it's the opposite: the worst students academically can often be the best with patients." Adam decided to not change majors.

In a subsequent Future Optometrist Club meeting, the guest speaker was one of the professors, Harry Van Doren. He was introduced as one of the world's leading experts on penetrating eye injuries
--an injury common in war. Van Doren may have been an expert on eye injuries but he made no eye contact with his audience, and his voice was unclear and barely audible. When Adam whispered to another student, "What's with him?" He replied, "He has Asperger's, on the autism spectrum. He's brilliant and kind but can't communicate worth shit."

And that made Adam stay after his talk to ask him a few questions and decide to visit him during his next office hour.

The next episode is HERE.