By Rabbi B. Elka Abrahamson
We need a word for that feeling one experiences when you either a) reply all in error or b) send a sensitive (or worse) email to the wrong person … an easy mistake given the number of say, rabbis or David’s or Rachel’s you have on your contact list. If you don’t know that feeling, you are not only lucky, you are unusual. And also, the odds that you will experience it at some point is highly likely. I suggest we call it a kishkor – a mash-up of kishke and error because, at least in my experience, that is where the feeling hits. Or perhaps a shvi-tzake, shvitz and mistake coming together to capture the sweaty palms hitting the keyboard to figure out what to do next.
David Pogue asked the same question in his New York Times Crowdwise column and shared that there is something called an “Oh No window.” You can set up a “freak-out delay” and your email will automatically wait 60 seconds after you hit send giving you time for redo in the event of a shvitzake. You can also deactivate the reply all button and deploy only when absolutely necessary. Perfect. Let’s hear it for technical solutions for, well, self-inflicted technical-challenges or unforced errors.
The term unforced error is derived from tennis. It refers to a mistake in play attributed to one’s own failure rather than to the skill or effort of one’s opponent. We hear it used also to refer to a careless move or mistake of one’s own making and owing to the error, one incurs negative consequences. Some unforced errors, like reply all, can be managed by computer delays or deactivation settings. Most, however, require personal intention setting … a deliberate change of work habits that represent not only best practice but menschy ways of dealing with people. It matters. Others notice. Okay, we notice.
Most Jewish professionals get most things right most of the time. And all of us make unnecessary mistakes some of the time. In this spirit, and with the full admission that I continue to work on every “you have to get these right” habits, I thought it might be useful to name the stuff all Jewish professionals ought to get right, but don’t always.
I have attempted to move from the most obvious on the continuum of “duh” to what might be less obvious or “oh yeah that” and finally the “never-even-thought-of-that” side of the scale. This highly curated set of avoidable unforced errors was crowd-sourced with a few discerning colleagues and by no means is it an exhaustive list. It is not a particularly inspiring set of ideas. In some ways, and here is a great trick in engaging you, reader, these are rather boring. But being sure you integrate these habits into your work life is important. I call them my Do Diligent Dozen. Here they are:
1. Make being on time a priority. Being late is not endearing even if you tell people “I’m always late.” Goes without saying, text or call if delayed. Cell phones have completely transformed the anxiety of tardiness. For the most part, your dead phone battery is an annoying excuse for not calling. Some say, be early.
2. Read emails relevant to your work and schedule. To the end.
If an e-mail contains information or instructions, read it carefully. Don’t blame the author if you would have written it differently, used bullet points, numbers, bigger font, made it an attachment or whatever. You may be right that it’s a poorly constructed email! Fine, note it. But, please, many colleagues admonish, don’t waste other people’s time to write or call to obtain information you already have.
3. Respect deadlines. All of them. If you are not able to make a deadline, say so and create an alternative plan reached in conversation with those impacted by your tardiness. Ignoring deadlines is rude (including RSVPs) and demonstrates a lack of kavod to your colleagues.
4. Adhere to guidelines.
If an application asks for a 60-second video, make it 60 seconds. If you are asked to speak at an event for 9-10 minutes, or write for a journal with a word limit, or agree to give a 7-minute d’var torah … abide by the rules.
And a personal appeal: Please, please refrain from lovingly sharing with your audience that it is just so difficult to say all you need to say in the nine minutes or three minutes you were allotted. Why? You waste (at least) 30 seconds of everybody’s precious time, including your own, and you’ll embarrass your host. You agreed to the guidelines.
5. Clean up after yourself. There will never – ever – be a point in your career when you are beyond washing your own dishes, taking out the garbage or rearranging chairs. Never.
6. Close loops. We all know the importance of returning phone calls and e-mails without being chased. One larger concern that’s important to shine a light on in the “loop-closing category” is looping back to those people who guide, support, refer or introduce you to others. First, be grateful and say thank you. Beyond this, I beseech you – yes, I am using the verb beseech – to follow up with those same people on the status of the position, decision, dilemma or connections. You can certainly tell your adviser or colleague you reached a decision you prefer not to share. Just close the loop. Does that sound obvious? Well, it does and yet here it is on this list collected from thoughtful professionals. So … do the math.
7. Don’t be too enamored with your own press. Most of us write our own bios anyway. It is important to give yourself credit for your good work with equal parts of humility and pride. At the same time, make a steadfast and uncompromising commitment to living up to and earning your fine reputation in all that you do. Earn your reputation with each interaction and presentation. In technical terms, that translates into being a bit over-prepared, a bit over-dressed and a bit over-appreciative for opportunities. Winging it is for the birds.
8. Phone a Friend. Regardless of your talent, charm and brilliance, remember that a career is a zig-zagging lattice, not a single directional ladder to the top, however you define it. Success is incremental. Be patient and realistic. Always seek guidance if you feel you are being underpaid, overworked, stuck with a lackluster title or not being given proper credit for your accomplishments. Check your assumptions with a knowledgeable mentor. Grumbling is not a plan; sharing your complaints on Facebook is not a strategy. These are mistakes. Phone a friend. Seek counsel. And yes, loop back to them eventually with a thanks and a plan.
9. Don’t let worry master you, rather, motivate you. Focus on motivation over anxiety. A personal example: in my first professional position, budget presentations made me feel incompetent, especially when the board of the congregation was rich with San Francisco accountants. After a couple of years of quivering during budget meetings and weary from my own helplessness, I asked for tutoring from one of those accountants and an especially demanding one at that. She was appreciative, caring and a demanding coach. I doubt budgeting will ever be among my core strengths, but it no longer causes me excessive anxiety. And yes, I over-dress and over-prepare for budget meetings. Don’t let worry master you, rather, motivate you and in that spirit.
10. Good help is hard to find … but find it. Cultivate a small circle of trusted peer mentors. And I implore you to eventually identify someone who is on-call for and will provide you with honest feedback: a loving, in-your-face truth teller. My truth teller, rabbinic school classmate and dear friend, is my brutal editor. She has ripped down to the studs (as in, “Well, I liked the title,”) what I thought were perfect sermons, ground-breaking columns or brilliantly written letters. And because I am equally invested in her success, I treasure the opportunity to lovingly rip apart her work. Her masterful red editing pen has made my speaking so much more effective. From the very trivial to the important and of course the urgent … when you are uncertain about what you are doing, please don’t fake it, unless maybe it’s a niggun. When the stakes or expectations are high, please do not be so arrogant as to think you are getting it right all on your own, but instead, seek and keep the help. When you write that angry email or let-me-point-out-the-impossible-nature-of-my-position memo or that well-crafted managing-up letter to identify the faults of your supervisor, whatever it is, share it with a critical friend before you send it.
11. Use cc, bcc and reply all judiciously and with great care and never, ever as a weapon of punishment or revenge.
12. Avoid the busy trap. In a widely published essay from 2012, Tim Kreider wonders if busy-ness has become a key part of the identity of high achievers. He writes “If you live in America in the 21st century you’ve probably had to listen to a lot of people tell you how busy they are. It’s become the default response when you ask anyone how they’re doing: ‘Busy!’ ‘So busy.’ ‘Crazy busy.’ It is, pretty obviously, a boast disguised as a complaint. It makes you feel in demand, important and even unattainable.”
Avoid falling into it. Yes, of course plumb the effectiveness of your life choices, the diminishing returns of back-to-back-to back meetings and appointments, and tenaciously calibrate your work/life balance. Limit busy-ness as an excuse and as your default answer to “How are you?” For many Jewish professionals, though by no means all, our busy-ness is born of privilege. Thank God we are blessed with busy and largely meaningful jobs that make for busy lives. Avoid absorbing “busy” into your core identity lest it define you and then, suddenly, you say it so often that you become less approachable, unavailable or even, uninteresting.
Mindful Shabbat observance, however you pursue that goal, is a beautiful antidote to stay out of the trap. And don’t be too busy to tackle all the items on this list. These are the prerequisites for success: diligence, humility and respect for all the others in the constellation of your relationships.
What this article may lack in inspiration, may it make up in even a smidgeon of practical information that will go a long way in keeping you from:
- losing points owing to unforced errors. (Not a statistic where you want to score high.)
- being on the wrong side of a shvitzake.
- sparing you from having ever to hear any of these suggestions one-on-one. Much easier to develop good habits suggested in a short article, an intentional reply all.
Rabbi B. Elka Abrahamson is the President of The Wexner Foundation.
Cross-posted on The Wexner Foundation blog.