One year and counting

Today marks the first anniversary of my joining Georgia Tech Research Institute as director of communications.

I kept mentioning it to people all week because in some ways, I just couldn’t believe it. A year had flown by, and I have alternatingly felt like I have always worked at GTRI and it is my first day all over again. It’s a complicated place that solves some of the world’s most complex problems. It can be daunting.

Today’s essay is one of those times when my vocation and avocation collide. I chose to write about my employer because if Atlanta is the capital of the New South, then Georgia  Tech is at the technological center. Tech Tower rises among the historic brick buildings and stately oaks in Midtown, surrounded by some of the most technically-advanced laboratories in the world. The juxtaposition is exactly what I’d call “New South.”

The iconic Tech Tower in the heart of the historic campus in Midtown Atlanta.
The iconic Tech Tower in the heart of the historic campus in Midtown Atlanta.

As one of the top-ranked technology-focused learning institutions in the world, Georgia Tech is currently riding a wave of positive momentum. I was fortunate enough to arrive at Tech when enrollment has increased by 11 percent in the last five years and applicants increased by 70 percent. As more and more students want a Georgia Tech education, 2,764 freshmen were enrolled this year out of more than 17,000 applications. The average SAT score of a Georgia Tech freshman this year? 1,421. I don’t know about you, but I couldn’t have gotten into Georgia Tech.

It’s not just the academic side that is experiencing growth. In the past five years, contract awards for research have increased by 40 percent to top out last year in excess of $655 million. GTRI alone has accounted for more than $300 million of that research each of the last two years.

Whether or not this record-setting pace continues remains to be seen, but these statistics support the idea that Georgia Tech is a good place to be. I’ll spare you any more of my public relations sales pitch, and instead offer three observations from my first year of working at Georgia Tech:

1.) People think you are smarter when you say you work at Georgia Tech. I have had this happen to me all year long. I try to explain that I’m not one of the smart ones, I’m just a PR guy, but when people see that yellow ID badge, they make assumptions. I do my best to keep my mouth shut and not shatter the illusion.

I exhaust my knowledge of technical topics very quickly, and I owe a great debt of gratitude to research communicators John Toon, Kirk Englehardt and the rest of my communications team for helping me acclimate.

Every day I have to remind myself that I know things that can help. These engineers and scientists may know things I could never wrap my mind around, but I can help them tell their story in a compelling way through the proper channels to engage people (and sponsors) in their work.

2.) Scientists and engineers are people, too. When I went into the interview process at GTRI for this position, I decided I could not make a case for my scientific acuity. Instead, I decided to treat everyone I came in contact with as a human being. Not only did it land me the job, but I think it has helped tremendously in building a rapport with colleagues who are world renowned experts in their fields.

I have found the people at GTRI and Georgia Tech to be some of the most engaging and accepting people I’ve ever had the opportunity to work with. They have welcomed me warmly, graciously taking the time to explain what they do and exhibiting good humor in the process.

They have lives outside of the lab, and enjoy connecting on a personal level. Yes, there are those who fall into the “Big Bang Theory” caricature, but those are the exceptions, not the rule.

3.) Technology and discovery do not replace the power of relationship. When I came here a year ago, I never thought scientists and engineers could make a work environment feel like family. I know not everyone gets along with each other. I’m not naïve.

But the general atmosphere of GTRI is one of compassion and genuine concern for each other. I’ve seen a comforting embrace offered to someone who had just suffered a loss of a loved one. I’ve had prayer with a colleague who was concerned for a co-worker who was in the throes of traumatic illness and life circumstances. I’ve listened as team members shared their personal and family challenges.

As much as my Georgia Tech and GTRI colleagues are some of the world’s brightest minds, they have some of the world’s biggest hearts.

So at the risk of sounding like sophomore Nick Selby, who went viral this week when his Freshman Convocation Speech landed on YouTube, I’m thrilled to be at Georgia Tech. I can only hope to contribute to Tech’s upward trajectory.

Forgive my love letter to Georgia Tech, but maybe you have had similar experiences at a job or with colleagues? Leave a comment and share what makes your work place a great place to be. Or maybe you love Tech, too. It’s OK to say nice things about Tech. The Tech-Georgia game isn’t for another few months. I won’t tell on you.

Five ways to avoid being trapped in fantasy football conversations

As a chronicler of life in the New South, I am duty-bound to warn you that we have entered a time of year when sports obsession reaches new heights (or depths, depending on your point of view.)

You need to be prepared for the threat of any conversation being derailed by talk of someone’s fantasy football team. With more than 35 million people now playing fantasy sports the threat is real and the effects are devastating.

someecard on fantasy football that says: "My fantasy job is to work with people who don't incessantly talk about fantasy football at work."
If you have ever felt this way, you may be suffering from UFFD.

There you are, minding your own business, talking about something completely neutral like politics or religion, and someone launches into a tirade about losing a fantasy football game because a coach elected to go for the two-point conversion rather than kick the extra point.

What do you do? How do you protect yourself?

I can help.

You see, I am prone to Unwanted Fantasy Football Dialogue (UFFD). A fantasy football player since the early 1990s, I will participate in three leagues this year. I once drafted a team on accident while trying to join a mock draft and ended up keeping the team and playing in the league with a bunch of random guys. I have been guilty of discussing the performance of my fantasy team(s) with people who didn’t care and I have seen the impact.

So, as a public service or maybe penance for all of the fantasy football conversation I have inflicted on people over the years, I am offering the non-fantasy player self-defense techniques.

1.) Change the subject. At the first sign of trouble, you must immediately bridge to a more palatable conversation. “So my starting running back is out for the season now with a torn ACL” can be thwarted by responding with “Speaking of running backs, did you hear that Publix has rutabagas buy one-get one?” See how that works? Very smooth. Seamless transition. In public relations we call that “bridging.”

2.) Talk to the hand. It’s time to pull this tired cliché out of moth balls and deploy it whenever you suspect the next words out of someone’s mouth might be “… I can still make the playoffs in my fantasy league if I score 123 points and …” You don’t even have to actually say “Talk to the hand.” Just put up your hand. It’s like training your pet. Give the person a visual cue that you are not going to listen. And if they persist? Keep raising the hand. Do this three or four times and the person should get the message. If they don’t, you may have to resort to swatting them with a rolled up newspaper or spraying their face with a misting water bottle.

Fantasy football excuses
If you get sucked into UFFD, you will hear some if not all of these.

3.) Avoidance. The worst offenders of UFFD are so immersed in the imaginary world of playing football general manager that they have no idea they are tiresome bores to all. They cannot be rehabilitated. Do not try. If you see them coming, walk the other way. If they are in the elevator, let it pass and get the next one. If they are heading to the bathroom at the same time as you, hold it. Discretion is the better part of valor. Live to fight another day.

4.) Go on the offensive. There are topics that can recoil even the most insensitive UFFD sufferer. My wife is an expert at this strategy. Like Raid sprayed on an intrusive palmetto bug are such conversation starters as “Honey, what do you think of this fabric sample?” and “I want to plant seasonal color” or “Did you hear that Dee Dee’s sister’s cousin is having 14 attendants at her wedding?” It might be helpful to have three or four of these written on a card so you won’t have to worry about memory issues. In particularly serious cases of UFFD, you may have to come up with as many 10 or 12 such topics to repel an attack.

5.) Fight fire with fire. Here is the one piece of wisdom that unlocks the medical mystery that is UFFD: fantasy football players only want to talk about their team. They don’t really care about anyone else’s team or anyone else’s league. It is a narcissistic pursuit. You can fend off all UFFD with this simple strategy: get your own team and talk about it. When someone starts in with “I can’t believe both of my wide receivers have a bye this weekend” you respond with “Yeah, and can you believe this guy tried to trade me Le’Ron McClain for Marshawn Lynch?” And when they counter with “That’s nothing. There was a guy who tried to get me to take Percy Harvin for Brandon Marshall” you say, “I know, right? Why didn’t Arian Foster get any playing time this preseason? I have no idea what I’m going to get out of him this year.” The more you talk about fantasy football not involving his or her team, the more they will become bored and seek to disengage. You only have to deploy this technique a couple of times before the UFFD sufferer will avoid you completely.

So there you have it. This is your survival guide for the next six months of fantasy football. You may get lonely and have no one to talk to, but at least you’ll still have your health. And that’s worth something, right?

Have you ever been subjected to UFFD? Are you a fantasy football widow/widower? What do you love/hate about fantasy football? What tactics have worked for you in avoiding UFFD? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment below, and good luck on the  upcoming season… unless you’re in one of my leagues.

‘Yes’ and ‘No’

The argument usually starts with this admonition from my wife: “You need to learn to say ‘No.’”

The problem is that by the time this conversation happens, it’s too late. I’ve already committed myself to a number of conflicting responsibilities. At the moment I say “Yes” to anything, I’m starting down a path that will ultimately lead to a discussion of priorities.

By saying “Yes” to some things, I’m saying to “No” to others.

To do list with glasses
If only it were this simple.

For example, by agreeing to attend a district scout leader meeting on a Thursday night, I am saying “No” to spending a quiet evening at home, recovering from a busy day at the office, conversing with my children, reading my boys their bedtime stories and connecting with my wife a for a few minutes at the end of the day.

In hindsight, that seems like a high price to pay to attend a meeting, but at the time I say “Yes” I am delusional. I think I can do everything. I can pile commitments upon commitments without consequences.

Most disturbing is that this is a habitual failure. It started when I was in college. By my junior year I had amassed commitments all over campus, filled my day planner with a year’s worth of activity each week, and sacrificed necessary biological functions like eating and sleep.

Back then I failed to grasp how I got into these “Yes” messes. I couldn’t see it coming. It would pile up and all of a sudden I was buried, unable to escape my to-do list. Fast forward 20 years, and I have no excuse. I should know better.

I have a family that needs unstructured time with me. I have to get enough rest to function at work. The consequences of overcommitting are more serious.

It would be too easy to blame the New South, to call this a symptom of a busy, digital age in which inputs never stop and failing to unplug robs us of time to connect with the important people in our lives. And it would be misplaced to blame all the people who ask me to do things. No one puts a gun to my head.

My friend and mentor calls saying “No” being “socially firm.”

Is it genetic? With a family in ministry, I’m just one in a group of over-committers, biting off more than we can chew in our schedules to do good for others while we fail to give ourselves the time we need to be restored.

Is it mental illness? What form of OCD makes a person compulsively say “Yes” to everything and how deep does one have to be in denial to think he or she can do it all?

Is it just poor judgment? It’s not like what I’m saying “Yes” to is bad. I’m choosing to do a good thing, but often at the expense of doing the best thing.

It’s still the beginning of the school year, and parents everywhere are helping their kids adjust to the demands, the schedules, and the extra work that must be done for the next nine months. Just as their kids have a routine they must return to, parents who give their time to their kids’ schools, sports teams, scout groups, church activities and music rehearsals and performances have to gear up mentally for the 9-month grind.

In my defense, my biggest volunteer commitments are overlapping for only two-and-a-half months. I’m learning to enlist help. I’m trying to pick activities that put me into greater contact with my children. The time I’m giving away will have a return.

But still, the question remains: Why do I do it?

I want to help. I have an overdeveloped sense of obligation, a duty to give back to causes that have benefitted me or that benefit others.

I have recently turned down two significant time commitments, so maybe I am learning. But when the schedule is overflowing already, it’s not really that difficult to see that nothing else can fit.

It’s August, and it’s a long way until June when things can calm down again. There will be highs and lows, but getting through it is all about time management.

And saying “No” to anything else.

Where are your soft spots when people ask you to do things? Is it volunteering? Is it supporting your kids’ activities? Is it your church? Is it social commitments? How do you say “No?” Say “Yes” to leaving a comment below and share your wisdom.

The favorite part of my day

With so much noise in our lives in the New South, I often fail to listen to my children.

Now that school has started again, I have a daily opportunity to engage with my boys on a meaningful level each night at the dinner table.

It’s the favorite part of my day.

Boys with their dog on the first day of school
Our customary first day of school photo, minus Carlton who was at his grandparents. Oh, and Tobey is making his debut in the annual photo.

This week we sent our two older boys back to school. Our youngest must wait until the more reasonable start of the day after Labor Day. Back to school brings many challenges – social anxiety, homework, time management – but it also ushers in the return of the “How was your day?” conversation.

I ask this question at the dinner table every night, but during the summer I am more likely to get shrugs, “I don’t knows” or a recounting of a convoluted plot line from “Adventure Time.”

What I discovered this week as the boys headed back to their respective schools with loaded backpacks in tow, is that I actually look forward to this part of the day most of all. Yes, in the beginning, there is a lot of excitement and talking over each other and general rambunctiousness. But we are already settling into a routine.

By simply asking “What happened at school today?” I get a window into their world. I hear names of friends and classmates I don’t know. I learn about their reactions to teachers’ instructions or correction. I am asked for input on how to handle difficult situations with peers. The picture of who they are becoming comes into a little bit clearer focus.

Take Harris, my middle son, for example. He’s been eager to tell me how he’s setting up his first writing assignment. He likes to write in his journal, and the fact that he is excited about expressing his thoughts makes me happy. He spent the last two weeks of summer vacation talking about starting a blog.

Barron seems to be hung up on the quality of food served in the middle school cafeteria. Each night we’ve been getting a food critic’s view of the menu, presentation and service of that day’s lunchroom experience. He seems to think it was better in elementary school. He’s already becoming a grumpy old man! “Back when I was in elementary school, they gave us a full plate, and the fruit was fresh and ripe and you had enough time to eat!”

At Carlton’s pre-school, they put the children in a circle at the end of each day and sing a song: “Carlton, Carlton, what would you say? What was your favorite part of the day?” He brought that tradition home, and often we’ll go around the table and sing that question to each family member in turn. The dog can’t bear the singing, but it’s music to my ears.

I know it’s just the first week and harder days are coming. There will be procrastinated projects, math tests, over-commitments from extra-curricular activities, band auditions and hours of reading and journaling, but that’s OK. To me, these are opportunities to enter my children’s world and be a resource to them and help them learn.

My mother and I formed strong bonds over math homework the ill-fated year I took honors Algebra II and honors Geometry at the same time. She was my nightly tutor, and she hung in there with me despite my frustrations and protestations. And in those rare “aha” moments, we were able to share a sense of accomplishment.

Don’t get me wrong, I love summer. It’s great to see your kids invent ways to fill their time and get much-needed rest. I enjoy taking time off from my work to be with them and go places and do things the school schedule won’t allow. But it is in the daily experience of life that I derive the most meaning. These ordinary times are when my relationships with my children are deepened.

So welcome back to school. If you or your kids haven’t started back they soon will. I hope you are able to greet that day with open arms and enjoy the dinner table conversation that night with an open heart.

What kinds of stories or information do you get from your kids after a day of school? Do you welcome “back to school” or dread it? When do you feel that you bond most with your children? Take a moment to reflect and share your thoughts with us by leaving a comment below.

My semi-annual appraisal

There are two times a year I evaluate the direction of my life: New Year’s and my birthday.

New Year’s resolutions are somewhat cliché, but the start of a new calendar year is a natural time to take stock of your life, look at your goals and determine course corrections. My birthday falls nearly eight months later on July 30. That’s plenty of time to see how things are working.

This sign on the back door from my boys means two things: I'm another year older and it's time to evaluate my life. Oh, and maybe at third thing: They think I'm great.
This sign on the back door from my boys means two things: I’m another year older and it’s time to evaluate my life. Oh, and maybe a third thing: They think I’m great.

This week, as I turn 43 and look at my life, there are four words that stand out: writing, running, family and rest. Let’s take them in order:

Writing

Friends and regular readers of New South Essays know this has been a year of transition for me. Taking a new job and moving things around in my schedule to accommodate a new commute has caused me to tinker with things a little. It cost me a few weeks of inconsistent posting back in the spring before I finally determined that I needed to dedicate two mornings a week to New South Essays.

It was impossible to do anything of quality by getting up on Saturday morning, opening up a vein and bleeding into WordPress. I now take Wednesday mornings to work up the first draft of the week’s post, allowing time for my editor, Carla, to take a whack at it. I have three days to get my photo or art arranged and Saturday morning to edit, rewrite, post and share.

This seems to be working well. I am maintaining my creative outlet and fulfilling my compulsion to write while traffic to New South Essays has never been higher. Thanks for your response and your continued reading.

What I’d like to figure out now is how to get back to the re-write on my novel, which has been lying dormant for more than a year now. That goal may just have to wait.

Running

I had the delusional goal of qualifying for the Boston Marathon when I turned 40 three years ago. Somehow I thought I could get 10 years older AND 13 minutes faster. It didn’t happen. I finished the Running for the Bay Marathon in Apalachicola, Fla., in October 2010 in 4:04, well off the qualifying pace.

After evaluating what went wrong, I decided I needed to train harder. I registered for the Nashville Marathon in April of 2011 and began a more rigorous training regimen. The result? A bad case of plantar fasciitis which caused me to miss the race. I now have a $100 T-shirt to show for it.

I’m back to running three days a week, working out with weights two and resting two. I’m no closer to Boston, but I’m also not injured. Sometimes, you just have to set your goals a little lower. I may make another attempt at a marathon in the future, but I’m letting go of that dream for now.

Family

Perhaps the most important life lesson I’ve learned in recent years is that being in my family’s presence doesn’t necessarily mean I’m with them. I was naïve to think my children didn’t notice when my mind was elsewhere. I used to believe that as long as I was physically involved in our family activity my frame of mind didn’t matter.

I was wrong. In order for me to be the husband and father my family needs me to be, I have to lay aside the unfinished work of the day, build time into my schedule for just hanging out and engage in each outing with gusto. Only then can I strengthen the bonds with my wife and children and create lasting memories.

And that’s just the people who live in my house. I still have a need to stay connected with my parents in Florida and my brothers in Alabama and Texas. These are challenges I never dreamed would be so difficult when we all lived under the same roof.

My goal is depth. I don’t want to just go through the motions. I want to connect with members of my family in deep and meaningful ways. Life is too short for pleasantries or issue avoidance.

Rest

Simply put, I need more sleep. This is the steady refrain I hear from Carla on a weekly basis. I aim for 7 hours a night, but generally get somewhere around six or less, even on the weekends. I used to brag about this schedule, laughing it off when people said I was crazy.

I’m beginning to think people are right.

If I nod off in an afternoon meeting at work, it undermines my effectiveness. If I get behind the wheel of my car on my afternoon commute feeling drowsy, I could end up on the sky copter traffic report. Caffeine can only take me so far. I need to find a way to get more sleep.

But the early morning is when I do the things I enjoy: running, writing, praying. I am fed by these activities. This is one of my constant and biggest challenges. Plus, guess when I do all the work for my volunteer commitments? That’s right, before sunrise.

Going forward I’m altering my schedule. We’ll see how I do putting a priority on sleep.

Despite these challenges, I conclude this summer evaluation with a sense of optimism. My life isn’t quite up to par in all areas, but it is good. The love and affection showered on me on my birthday was heart-warming. It reminded me that I am richly blessed with all the good gifts of life that matter.

I can’t help but try to make things just a little better. We’ll see how I’m doing come New Year’s.

When do you evaluate your life? Do you follow a structure or do you think about life when prompted by your circumstances? Maybe you take stock once a week or once a month. What are the words that come to mind when you evaluate your current state? Share how, when and what your measure yourself by in a comment below. In fact, make it a goal to make more comments on New South Essays!