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What I Learned from the Library

Photo by Susan Yin on Unsplash

When I return books to the library, I would prefer to bring them inside and hand them to a staff member.

In doing so, I’m trying to be … I don’t know … polite or helpful or faster in getting them back on the shelves for someone else. This is opposed to dropping them in the large container outside where it says “return books here.”

I’ve done it my way a few times, but a couple of times when I checked out later, my account was flagged for not returning a book.

This was a concern. I knew quite well that I had returned the book – and I denied not returning it. But you can’t argue with a record, and the record said I hadn’t returned the book.

So … what to do, what to do, what to do?

Well, I had a thought. I went to the shelves and looked for what I could see. And sure enough, I found the book in question right where it needed to be. I brought it to the staff member who’d alerted me to the flag and said, “See? I did return the book. Here it is.”

This happened twice before I understood what was probably going on. I was operating outside procedures and expecting someone else to do the same.

It makes sense, when you think about it.

When all the books are retrieved from “return books here,” there is a set procedure for checking them back in and returning them to the shelves. If a book is set on a counter, though, the person at the desk may get busy with the next patron, and the check-in step gets overlooked. Later, when the staff member turns his/her attention back to the book that’s still sitting there, it’s returned to the shelf without the official check-in.

So I don’t take the returned books inside anymore. I drop them outside where it says “return books here.”

One of the morals of this story is: don’t get mad at human nature when any of us could make the same mistake.

The other moral is: most of us operate better when we have set procedures, checklists, guidelines. And if you’re a solopreneur, the nice thing is, you can invent your own.

I like the procedures I’ve established for tending to my tasks, staying in front of my market, and moving forward on my goals. Structure frees me to get the things done that I’d like to do.

Minnie Lamberth is an author, content writer and creativity coach.

Is There Something Different about You?

What’s the one thing people think of when they think of your business? Is it consistent with how you see yourself?

I’m a writer for hire, and the fact that I’m a writer is fairly well established in my network of contacts (my referral pipeline). While I do want people to think of me as a writer when they have a project, having writing skills is not enough of a distinction.

In the world of marketing and communications where I’ve spent my career, most of my colleagues have writing skills. Many entered their fields with journalism or communications degrees. Plus, the designers I work with often write their own copy – and are pretty clear about how they want their messages crafted.

If I proclaim to the universe “I’m a writer,” I can almost hear an echo from everyone in my network: “So am I.”

Therefore, there must be something different about me. And this is it: In my client work, I make things easier for others to get their work done. These “others” are the ones under pressure to fill their member magazines, produce their newsletters, retool their websites, prepare their press releases, publish their books. They’ve got bosses, members or clients to please, and they’ve only got so much time to get their work done. When they’re overwhelmed, I make it easier for them to move forward.

This sense of ease isn’t an end product, however. It needs to run through everything I do. It’s easy to get in touch with me. I am easy to talk to about projects. The other side is that I’m not going to create hardships by missing a deadline or doing shoddy work or in any way embarrassing my contact related to his/her decision to hire me.

I didn’t know any of this when I started out. I thought (and believed) people would hire me because I’m a writer. I was wrong – not about my writing skills but about the reasons people hire others. I have never once convinced someone to hire me because I’m a writer. I have only been able to persuade those who have a problem to solve that I am an easy solution to the pressure they are under. Thus, understanding my unique selling position came from better understanding my clients.

So, what’s different about you? What is your identity as an entrepreneur that goes beyond your skill sets? What is the sweet spot, the secret ingredient, the illuminating benefit that separates you from your competitors and solves a client’s problem? Or what if this “competitor” is not another provider of the same service but the client’s reluctance? As I mentioned, my clients could do their own writing projects. Often my competitor is not another writer sneaking into my territory – but a client saying “I’ll just do it myself.”

Minnie Lamberth is a copywriter, content creator and creativity coach.

Taking a Break to Volunteer

Yesterday I took a break from my copywriting to volunteer with the Respite Ministry at First United Methodist Church. Other community-centered companies give their employees volunteer hours, so I figure I can give myself the same, even as a solopreneur.

For one of the activities, we set up four long church tables, pulling them together to form a much larger rectangle. We then covered them with long cloths and set up stacks of empty soft drink cans. The participants rolled (or threw) tennis balls to knock down the cans, and volunteers set them back up again.

I thought about calling the game “Tin Can Alley.” But then I thought maybe “Can ‘n Ball.” I could sort of see a logo and packaging. This was my writer’s mind meandering while engaged in other pursuits.

Volunteering is a chance to do something fun and helpful while it also gives a your brain a break, and I love how creative ideas come (even ones I’ll never use) when I’m not doing what I usually do.

Getting Real

I came home from my morning walk and found that my feline assistant Trixie had grabbed her favorite toy and gone back to bed. I get it. It’s January. The weather is dreary. And toys are nice.

I bought this scurrying creature for her at The Dollar Tree on her first birthday, and she has loved it now for more than two years.

I’ll find it in my closet, on my desk chair, on a table, in the middle of the floor, and, quite often in the mornings, I’ll realize she brought it to the top of my bed in the middle of the night.

For a time, this toy had a little mechanical device within it. When you pulled the tail, it supposedly scurried like a mouse. That device is long gone – loved away through lots of jumps and carries from here to there.

To Trixie, I think this toy has become real.

I didn’t know about The Velveteen Rabbit, a classic children’s story by Margery Williams, until I reached college. Somehow I missed the tale of the boy whose love made a stuffed rabbit real. But I heard friends talk about it.

People long remember stories they hear in childhood.

I think often about Stone Soup, where this man was in a village long ago making soup out of a stone that he’d put in a pot of water. I’m not sure if this was supposed to be a picture of a scam or a display of genuine leadership, but people kept saying things like, “Oh, I’ve got some carrots. Let me add that.” Or “Here’s a little meat. Would that help?” And the whole community comes together to make soup that everyone enjoys.

It’s a nice tale. So much can happen when we work together to serve others. Hope you’ll remember some nice stories today about love, or community, or some other good quality.

Remembering a Hero

There are always heroes among us … the ones who do the small things you almost don’t notice or the big things you can’t miss or the middle-size things that’d show up if you made a list.

I remember my friend Pat one time saved me a glass of iced tea. She had hidden it on the counter during a luncheon event where I was volunteering. She’d heard me say I hoped there’d be some tea left by the time the workers ate. So she set a full glass behind some other stuff. When it was time, she pulled it out and said, “Here’s your tea. I saved it for you.”

That was a small thing, but I was grateful … not as much for the glass of tea, which could have been replaced with another type of beverage, but for the fact that she saved one for me.

Others have done big things and those middle-size things … or regular things over and over and over.

It’s nice to think about all the people who make a difference — the heroes among us — and to realize we can be those people too. Hope you’ll have a good week doing small things, big things or middle-size things that people appreciate and remember.

Cat at Rest

I’d read that cats make eye contact when entering a room because they want to know if you’re going to protect them as they get a little shut-eye. They’ve got to grab forty winks, or maybe eighty. Will you take care of the place, they want to know. Will you make sure they’re safe.

I always tell Trixie yes, go ahead. I’ve got it.

She came into my office just then, with sudden jump on table, but crouched position, ears back. Concerned. Could mean that something, perhaps a windblown leaf or a squirrel outdoors, had caused her concern.

“You okay?” I asked. She didn’t speak, which is her usual style when she’s unsure. She won’t meow if the thinks she’s going to tip off an intruder to her position. Smart girl.

I checked the windows. Probably a leaf. But could have been a squirrel.

She’s resting now. Getting that shut-eye she needed.

Hope you feel safe today, as if someone’s watching the place while you rest.

Introvert Entreprenuers

“You never get a second chance to make a good first impression.” We’ve heard the cliché and recognize that there’s a certain truth to the importance of starting off on the right foot. But that’s not always easy or natural, especially for creative entrepreneurs on the introvert side of the scale.

I remember earlier in my career recognizing that I’m not really a “first impression” sort of person.

I was a new hire and felt a pressure to demonstrate my value to my workplace right away. Yet the question I was asking myself was, “How could I tell my new boss that, years from now, she will be glad she gave me this chance? Is that even possible? Or do I have to wait years from now to say, ‘See, I told you that you would like me?’”

I sensed that my true skill set was being a long-term person. I’m a day-in, day-out kind of worker. That first handshake isn’t going to be the strong grip with the striking eye contact accompanied by a memorable elevator-pitch greeting. Over time, however, clients will find that I am consistent, reliable, accurate and helpful – and I do quality work.

So how does an entrepreneurial introvert move from “first glance” to the “over time” part? How do you demonstrate long-term reliability in your first impression?

First, start with your digital footprint. Keep your website content and social feeds updated. In today’s world, if you last posted six months ago or – even more ancient, back in 2016 – it almost looks like you’re out of business.

Yes, it can be hard to keep feeding the feeds, but create a system of repurposing content and make it happen. Through your social media feeds and website content, demonstrate that you’re active in your work and your professional community.

My projects comes through personal contacts, many of whom are Facebook friends. This smallish social world is a productive place for me to stay active, and I post something almost every day, often mentioning my work. In doing so, I am simply reminding people that I’m a writer for hire.

Second, concentrate on your second impression. In those immediate days after you get your opportunity, keep your promises. Show up. Be responsive. Return the call (or email or text).

My biggest mistake in self-employment occurred in the first three months out on my own. I had contacted a potential client. He agreed to a meeting. We discussed a project. I prepared and sent a proposal. He called me, leaving a voice mail to say the proposal looked good.

Here’s where things went wrong. In that voice mail he also said something to the effect, “I will call you in a couple of weeks to get started.” I took him at his word: he will call me in a couple of weeks. I was relieved, frankly. As an introvert, I had already pushed myself into the initial contact and the meeting. Having taken those steps, I was glad that it was my turn to wait for him to initiate.

Guess what? He didn’t call. After a long wait, I eventually followed up. By then, he had lost interest. We never worked together.

I was a lot younger and a lot greener then, but I did learn the lesson. In the digital space, that’s called onboarding. Back then it was called “follow up.” And that’s where your second impression takes place. Begin your long-term relationship by following through. Then stick with it day after day.

Minnie Lamberth is a marketing copywriter and creativity coach in Montgomery, Alabama.

Where Will You Walk Today?

“A motto favored by the ancients was solvitur ambulando: It is solved by walking.” – Kathleen Rooney in Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk

I have been walking for 30 years. I wonder where I’d be now if this walking had been done in a straight line instead of in a route that always took me back to the beginning. Most always in the mornings.

I started as a young adult when I lived in the Cloverdale community of Montgomery. I walked the neighborhoods and enjoyed seeing the beautiful and interesting homes.

Keeping a schedule was essential. I had to walk, dress, get to work. I was disciplined – no hesitation or variation. At a turn on Thorn Place, I would pass a couple almost every morning. We exchanged a friendly greeting. Later I found out that they knew a friend of mine. When he made the connection, he told me, “They can always tell if they’re running late by where they run into you.”

You could have set a watch by me.

When I moved to east Montgomery, I tried my own neighborhood, but it wasn’t good for walking. One time a dog, a pit bull I think, was at his front door with his owner. The owner had stepped inside at the moment the dog spotted me and tore down the street barking ferociously.

I stopped and stood still as he ran nearer and nearer. With no protection except my instincts, I started calling him, “Here, girl, here, boy (I didn’t know which), come on, come on.” I clapped my hands in friendly encouragement. He stopped bearing down with ferocity. He bent over and started a wag that moved through his whole body. He could see that I wasn’t a threat to him; I was a friend.

By then his owner stepped back outside and called the dog home. It was a good lesson: greet your threats with friendliness. But I didn’t walk that way again.

Back then, they said it was safe to walk in the malls. You could be a “mall miler” in an enclosed, weather-protected, climate-controlled space. I gave it a try, still on a tight schedule to get to work by 8.

When I signed up, no one told me, “This may be a free place to walk, but it’s also a social gathering of retirees. They’re going to expect you to maintain a certain ‘friendliness’ standard. Believe me, they will try to score points on you if you fail to meet this standard.”

I soon found out that, as a much younger member, I had stepped into some mores and customs I did not expect. I figured out which lady was in charge of the social environment when I could see that she had purposefully doubled back to greet me head on: “My, you sure take you’re walking seriously, don’t you?”

“Yes, I do,” I said, surprised. I did sense, though, that this was like a line of dialogue in a film noir, and I suspected I was headed for trouble. This question represented a conversation she had been having with “the others.” I was about to fail a test.

One morning an older couple was walking along the length of the mall behind me as I turned down one of the alcoves. Instead of following me down the alcove, the husband motioned to his wife to walk straight so that they would be exactly where I was as I completed the alcove. His wife laughed as they joined me at the alcove’s end. Her laughter was the tell. They were making a point. They didn’t talk to me. They weren’t friendly. They just forced this situation where I would have to walk beside them through the rest of the mall. He had scored points, and now he and his wife had an enjoyable story to tell the others. I conceded defeat.

It’s been many, many years, and I’ve walked many, many miles in different places. Yet I am always saddened when I think of how that man made his point – showing off for his friends, creating discomfort for me, and hearing his wife’s laughter as he did. So unnecessary. I didn’t go back, though I did wonder if they ever felt regret.

We don’t always know what it’s taken someone to get where they are. We don’t always know what problems they’re trying to solve by walking. Kindness isn’t that hard. Besides, it’d be a shame if the people who met us today said to themselves, “In retrospect, the pit bull was nicer.”

Are There Questions You Need to Change?

I remember when my mother was ill and near the end of her life, I tried to make an intentional change in the questions I asked.

This is what was different now: normal Q&A. “What are you doing this weekend?” “Do you have bridge club today?” “How’s your garden?” “When are you coming to Montgomery?”

Questions like that just weren’t a good fit under the circumstances. But this one question was the one that stood out: “How are you feeling today?” Or the variation: “Are you feeling better?”

There was just so much I was bringing to questions like these, and I knew she knew that. The answer I wanted was something like: “I’m fine. I’m getting better every day. This will be over soon.”

I could feel how complicated this was getting, and I could tell as well that putting pressure on her to give me the answer I wanted to hear wasn’t helpful.

So I tried to discipline myself to change the questions. It wasn’t easy. Because the instinct for “Are you better?” was strong.

I thought of this need to change the questions yesterday after I got home from volunteering with Respite Ministry. (This is the caregiver support ministry at First Methodist, where participants with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia spend four hours enjoying social, recreational and mental engagement while their caregivers get a respite.)

I had read about a storytelling process to create engagement without pressure – designed by an organization called TimeSlips – and I was glad to see that we were going to use that process in one of the activities.

Basically you show an image and ask people to use their imagination and tell a story about the image. It removes the pressure of “remember when we did this?” and creates an opportunity for engagement and interaction by changing the questions.

It’s similar to creative prompts I’ve done many times in coaching groups I’ve been in. You take yourself out of the way you usually do things and ask a different question, and for those moments of creativity, the imagination becomes a source of delight and joy.

It’s not easy to change the questions. But I did hear someone yesterday say, “That was fun. I enjoyed that.” I’m glad I had a chance to see how creativity brings moments of healing.