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February 14, 2012

Valentine’s Day Priorities
Filed under: People Skills — Tags: — nedpelger

As I was walking and thinking this morning, I contemplated the military teaching on priorities: God, country, family, then self. I remember one of my first bosses in construction telling me that he was taught those priorities in the Navy, but wasn’t quite sure he agreed totally with the order.

Lex recently sent me the post below from Letters of Note of a man who lived and died by those priorities.

In 1861, as the American Civil War broke out, a 32-year-old lawyer named Sullivan Ballou left his wife of five years and two sons at home, and joined the war effort as a major in the Union Army. On July 14th of that year, well aware that particularly perilous times were approaching, he wrote but didn’t send the following beautiful letter to his wife, and warned her of the dangers he faced. Just a week later, he was killed in the First Battle of Bull Run along with 93 of his men. The letter was later found amongst his belongings and then delivered to his widow.

Sarah was 24 when Sullivan died. She never remarried, and passed away at 80 years of age. She is buried alongside her husband in Providence, Rhode Island.

(Source: PBS; Image: Sullivan Ballou, via Wikipedia.)

July 14, 1861
Camp Clark, Washington

My very dear Sarah,

The indications are very strong that we shall move in a few days – perhaps tomorrow. Lest I should not be able to write again, I feel impelled to write a few lines that may fall under your eye when I shall be no more. Our movements may be of a few days’ duration and full of pleasure – and it may be of some conflict and death to me. “Not my will, but thine, O God be done.” If it is necessary that I should fall on the battlefield for my Country, I am ready.

I have no misgivings about, or lack of confidence in, the cause in which I am engaged, and my courage does not halt or falter. I know how strongly American Civilization now leans on the triumph of the Government, and how great a debt we owe to those who went before us through the blood and sufferings of the Revolution. And I am willing – perfectly willing – to lay down all my joys in this life, to help maintain this Government, and to pay that debt.

Sarah, my love for you is deathless. It seems to bind me with mighty cables that nothing but Omnipotence could break; and yet my love of Country comes over me like a strong wind and burns unresistibly on with all these chains to the battlefield.

The memories of the blissful moments I have spent with you come creeping over me, and I feel most gratified to God and to you that I have enjoyed them so long. And hard it is for me to give them up and burn to ashes the hopes of future years, when, God willing, we might still have lived and loved together, and seen our sons grown up to honorable manhood around us. I have, I know, but few and small claims upon Divine Providence, but something whispers to me – perhaps it is the wafted prayer of my little Edgar – that I shall return to my loved ones unharmed. If I do not, my dear Sarah, never forget how much I love you, and when my last breath escapes me on the battlefield, it will whisper your name. Forgive my many faults, and the many pains I have caused you. How thoughtless and foolish I have often times been! How gladly would I wash out with my tears every little spot upon your happiness, and struggle with all the misfortunes of this world to shield you and your children from harm. But I cannot. I must watch you from the Spirit-land and hover near you, while you buffet the storm, with your precious little freight, and wait with sad patience till we meet to part no more.

But, O Sarah! If the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they loved, I shall always be near you; in the gladdest days and in the darkest nights, advised to your happiest scenes and gloomiest hours, always, always, and if there be a soft breeze upon your cheek, it shall be my breath; as the cool air fans your throbbing temple, it shall be my spirit passing by. Sarah, do not mourn me dead; think I am gone and wait for thee, for we shall meet again.

As for my little boys – they will grow up as I have done, and never know a father’s love and care. Little Willie is too young to remember me long, and my blue-eyed Edgar will keep my frolics with him among the deep memories of childhood. Sarah, I have unlimited confidence in your maternal care and your development of their character, and feel that God will bless you in your holy work.

Tell my two Mothers I call God’s blessing upon them. O! Sarah. I wait for you there; come to me and lead thither my children.


As you live through this Valentine’s Day, think glorious thoughts and strive to do the right thing every moment. Try to keep yourself last on that priority list.  Live intensely in the now.


February 7, 2012

Who Helped You?
Filed under: People Skills — Tags: — nedpelger

As a kid, I loved the music of Leon Russell. He was an amazing piano player and just as cool as they come.


Turns out, Leon Russel was one of Elton John’s heroes as well. But as Sir Elton’s career just kept building speed, Leon Russell’s was broken down by the side of the road. Leon had fallen on some hard times in recent years.

As Elton tells the story, he was thinking about the big influence Leon Russell had on his career and wondered where he was. He then thought, “If somebody helped you, and they are still alive, why not do what you can to help them?”

He found Leon as an old man, walking with a cane but still so cool and still an amazing piano player and singer. So Elton did a joint album with Leon Russell that hit the Billboard Top 10 and debuted as #1 on Amazon.

So my question for you and me today is, “Who Helped You?” If they are still alive, give them a call or send them a note or make an album with them or do something to express your gratitude. The difference between living with joy instead of regrets comes down to what you do in the now.

So, who helped you? What are you going to do about it? Please leave a comment below if this post stirred you to action.


January 2, 2012

Drive the Dream
Filed under: People Skills — Tags: — nedpelger

When I was in second grade, I recall the teacher mentioning the year 2000. I did the math and realized I’d be 43 years old. I thought I certainly wouldn’t live that long.  Now it’s 12 years after that iconic date and I’ll hit the double nickel this year. As each year passes, I’m learning to better live in the now and drive the dream.

To live in the now means to let go of past failures and accomplishments. What ever else they were, they are now past. It also means to let go of worries about the future. Worrying wastes precious time and energy…and both are in limited supply.

To live in the now requires courage. We must be willing to let go of the expectations of others and their expectations for us. We must strive to do the hard work that this particular moment requires. The better we do the hard work of this moment, the clearer the challenge for the next moment becomes. This seems a universal truth to me.

But living in the now requires some future focus as well, we must drive the dream by pondering, meandering, thinking directed thoughts, planning and enduring. All these tasks get done in the now, but drive the dream of the future.

So take time to ponder and meander. Great ideas and directions don’t come from the noisy crowd. Solitude rocks. But then take those dreams and make a plan. Remember, we can only manage what we measure. So have the courage to be specific.

Then know that change requires endurance. Know yourself well enough to understand your own motivations and traps. Struggle to keep yourself headed in the right direction. And when you fail, realize it’s not catastrophic, it’s just a one time failure that you need to move past by your next success. Endure.

A young friend on New Year’s Eve told me about the great successes in his new construction business. He told me he lives by my advice on success: Work harder and do the things the other guy isn’t willing to do. His paraphrase works for him, but I still like my original advice better: Successful people do the things unsuccessful people don’t want to do and won’t do.


December 30, 2011

The Fun Theory
Filed under: People Skills — Tags: — nedpelger

Fun helps change behavior for the better, whether for yourself or those you supervise. I watch superintendent Dereck Hench get amazing production on our projects from his employees and from other trade contractors. He makes it clear to all his employees that they must help others on the job whenever it’s reasonable. For example, if he sees a guy struggling to lift something, he jumps in to help. Everyone on the jobsite gets strongly encouraged likewise.

We also try to keep a forklift on the jobsite to keep guys from having to carry materials multi-floors or in other difficult ways. Everyone appreciates the help, which isn’t required in the contract, but just lubricates the flow on the jobsite. As we all work together more as a team, our jobsite cleaning goes smoother and the work fulfillment increases.

Adding a general attitude of fun on the jobsite makes this cooperation even more effective. We all will work harder and mind the work less if we’re having fun. Consider TheFunTheory website that Volkswagon produced. They show examples of how behavior changes for the better when some fun gets introduced to the equation.

Watch this video about a stair renovation that made the adjacent escalator much less used.


As you contemplate 2011 and look forward to 2012, please consider the fun theory. Whether it’s vowing to live a healthier life or produce more at work, make sure you build fun into the plan to increase the likelihood of success.


December 27, 2011

Woody Guthrie’s New Year’s Resolutions for 1942
Filed under: People Skills — Tags: — nedpelger

Woody Guthrie wrote some of the best American songs, including “This Land is Your Land“, as he traveled looking for work in the Great Depression. In fact, he sub-titled the song, “God Blessed America for Me” because he was tired of Irving Berlin’s unrealistic “God Bless America” that got so much radio play.

I’ve been a fan of Woody Guthrie’s hobo writing style since my teenage years and was fascinated by the hard times he lived through. Many folks in construction are getting a taste of those type of hard times in the last few years. When I say Woody’s New Year’s Resolutions in a BoingBoing post, I was amused and touched…thought you might be as well. Pay particular attention to his doodle drawings next to his goals.

I hope you are taking some time to think about what you accomplished and how you lived in 2011 and what you want to be different for 2012. We all know our projects go better when we plan well and execute intensely. Let’s do the same things for our careers, in fact, for our lives.


December 14, 2011

Don’t Confuse Excitement for Joy
Filed under: People Skills — Tags: — nedpelger

TBW and I took a friend last night for his first visit to Costco. Our friend spent the last 15 years in prison, so has been denied the shopping delight that is Costco. He was astounded by the great selection of organic foods and the low prices. We bought enough food to make it through a snowy PA winter (which I’m hoping to avoid since we just started footings this week on three projects).

As we loaded our prizes into the car, the young fellow in the next vehicle started talking about his wonderful weekend attending a Pittsburgh Steelers game. He exuded that it was the best night of his life. I kept my smartass answer to myself…that the best night of my life didn’t include football.

But as we drove out of the lot, my friend pondered the best night of his life. Having grown up in urban poverty with a regular diet of abuse, he simply couldn’t recall a best night of his life. With much of his life spent in prison, he wondered about best times. He could recall exciting times, but not best times.

I could probably describe 50 possible contenders for the best night of my life. I recalled when TBW and I ate at a little shack of a restaurant in the rain forest on an island off Puerto Rico. We celebrated an anniversary, almost alone in the restaurant, with a variety of old Paul Simon songs playing in the background…songs from our early days. We reminisced and laughed and glowed in our love. I surprised myself with how much joy I could recall in an instant.

My friend recalled a most exciting time. He was in a parking lot, having just picked a fight with one guy which quickly turned into four guys. He was taking lots of shots, but giving some good ones as well, when he saw a pistol. He grabbed the forearm that held the pistol and bent and twisted with all his might. But he just couldn’t break that arm and get that pistol dropped. He was taking lots of punches to the face, but knew they were insignificant compared to what bullets would do.

As he told the story, he roared with laughter as he recalled an old neighbor lady rushing toward him, shooting her .22 pistol in the air yelling, “Let him go. As the Lord’s my witness, I’ll shoot ya. Let’m go.” The other guys all ran at the sight and sound of this wild old woman rushing them, shooting and yelling.

So I guess this is my Christmas season post, contemplating the end of the year and the meaning of existence. If you’re like most folks in construction, it’s been a rough year. With less margin in every aspect of the business, things just get more intense. That’s the circumstance in which we find ourselves.

I dare you to raise your head and look beyond your circumstances, to consider what really matters most in your life. Every elderly person I’ve ever talked to has agreed that life goes by so quickly. Please don’t waste all your time and treasure on rubbish. Don’t confuse excitement for joy. Put forth the effort to learn what will bring you joy and take steps in that direction.

I’m starting to work on my plan for 2012 now. In recent years I’ve spent less time making an annual plan and I’m ready to get back to that effective habit. I like dreaming about what I should do and then tracking whether I accomplish my goals. We only get this one life, but if invested well, that should be enough.


November 15, 2011

Don’t ‘dat Hurt?
Filed under: People Skills — Tags: — nedpelger

I was barefoot running yesterday on 4 mile route that includes some smooth paved roads (which feel nice on the feet) and some tar and chip roads (which don’t). As I strided along on one of the tar and chip country roads, a backhoe operator stopped his work to watch me approach and said, “Don’t ‘dat hurt?”

As I ran along, considering my standard smartass response, “It feels so good when I stop,” I thought about all the other areas of my life that show the rougher road to be the better path. I learned the Secret of Success in my 20s and still hold it to be true. The Secret to Success? Successful people do the things unsuccessful people don’t want to do and won’t do.

Recently, I got a nice email note from a masonry worker in British Columbia, thanking me for this site and particularly the Converting Inches to Decimal Fractions instructional video shown below.


While he found my video helpful, he still struggled with simple math in general and wondered if I could do some 1:1 instruction. He was taking a tile setting class to improve his value and found the math challenging. I recalled my miserable failures trying to tutor my math-phobic daughter and realized that me tutoring probably wasn’t going to be a good solution.

TBW suggested I point him towards the Khan Academy instructional videos. He teaches basic concepts (and advanced ones too) amazingly well. Just watch this unit conversion video to get a sense of his method.


I hope the Canadian mason  puts in the effort to go through a couple of math videos a night and gets comfortable doing the exercises. After a few weeks, he’ll find that he gets it. He’ll discover that deep understanding that grows out of immersion. I hope that he (and you) puts forth the effort to do that hard thing.


November 4, 2011

Pick on Someone Your Own Sise
Filed under: People Skills — Tags: — nedpelger

I was running a job meeting yesterday for a project that’s had all sorts of challenges, yet the progress on site amazed me. The Superintendent has gotten all the trades working together in ways that exceed my project schedule and my expectations. It’s great to see guys shifting around on the jobsite work flow to be efficient and keep things moving. The job meeting was a pleasure as we all laughed about several items and addressed some concerns.

I started thinking about the value of humor on the job site. A good laugh lubricates social interactions, making everything run more smoothly. So inject some humor into your work today. Understand that humor has risks and try not to cross the line. But if the choice is do nothing or get a bit closer to the line than you’re comfortable with, nudge yourself toward that line.

The Economist had a tongue in cheek piece a few years ago addressing the “Problem” of children. They made the economic argument that smoking, driving and mobile phones all cause “Negative Externalities”…a situation where  those around the smoker, driver or loud phone talker were negatively impacted (annoyed) by the experience. The article went on to say:

Governments typically respond to such market failures in two ways. One is higher taxes, to make polluters pay the full cost of their anti-social behaviour. The other is regulation, such as emission standards or bans on smoking in public places. Both approaches might work for children.

For children, just like cigarettes or mobile phones, clearly impose a negative externality on people who are near them. Anybody who has suffered a 12-hour flight with a bawling baby in the row immediately ahead or a bored youngster viciously kicking their seat from behind, will grasp this as quickly as they would love to grasp the youngster’s neck. Here is a clear case of market failure: parents do not bear the full costs (indeed young babies travel free), so they are too ready to take their noisy brats with them. Where is the invisible hand when it is needed to administer a good smack?

The article went on to propose “Child-free zones” in airports, trains, bus stations, etc and advocated for a tax on children. Two weeks later, in the letters to the editor section, Jessica Morley age 6 responded:

Sir, you are wrong when you say that children are like cigarettes or mobile telephones. No one has to smoke or use a mobile phone, but everyone has to be a child and you were once one too. You need children to pay for the pensions of miserable old people like you.

Now pick on someone your own sise.


Jessica Morley (aged 6)


October 28, 2011

Lime Green Hatchback and the Process of Life
Filed under: People Skills — Tags: — nedpelger

My buddy Jim Stuckey, P.E. shared this week’s Friday Fun video. Jim’s watched it dozens of times and laughs every time. It sure cracks me up.  It’s a thing of beauty.


I got to know Jim when he left a VP job at a successful consulting engineer firm to become the Executive Director of Facilities and Technology at one of the fastest growing churches in the country. He took on a whole new set of work challenges because he believed it best invested his life.

That idea connected with me as I thought about my supper last night with my friend who just got out of a 15 year prison stay for selling drugs. My friend lived an intense life, both on the streets and in state prison where he reined as power lifting champion for years. As we talked about the struggles of transition, I thought about the process of continuity.

We tend to get more challenges, more work, more fun problems to solve as we successfully complete the ones in front of us. For example, if you can’t manage your personal time or money, don’t think you’ll do better in your own business. Get what seem to be the little struggles done right and you’ll have the opportunity to fight bigger battles.

If you think that you don’t want bigger problems to solve, that you dream of a life free of struggle or aggravation, don’t go into your own business. The rewards of running your own firm or being part of a growing firm are many, but carefreeness isn’t one of them.

Just like the Lime Green Guy in the commercial, we all get to select our own vision of beauty, of how to spend the currency of our life. I hope you don’t fall for the false bargain that implies ease brings happiness. Here’s to struggling, struggling well and struggling at the right things.


October 7, 2011

3 Memorizing Life Stories from Steve Jobs
Filed under: People Skills — Tags: — nedpelger

Take the 15 minutes to watch this inspiring commencement speech from Steve Jobs. He rarely shared personal info, but shares three stories here which truly motivate.


As a quick recap:

  1. You can’t connect the dots forward: make decisions without too much fear, knowing it will only make sense looking back…you can only connect the dots backward.
  2. Embrace failures: lose the heaviness of success and do great work by loving what you do.
  3. Remember you will be dead soon, you don’t have that much to lose: don’t waste your time living someone else’s life.

On the back cover of the final Whole Earth Catalog, remember these words, “Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish.”

We honor you, Mr Jobs, for a life intensely lived and for creating beauty and change.

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