Monday, May 27, 2013

Why I can’t think on my feet?

In my post I'm 50 Year's Old and Still Can't Think On My Feet I wrote about how I was approaching 50 and still unable to think on my feet. I had recently been called into a meeting with another manager concerning a possible mistake one of my employees had made. Instead of standing up for this employee or articulating my thoughts on the spot, I had to go back to my office, research the issue and return to make my point. I was so disappointed with my response time I created a challenge for myself to become a stronger person in my 50th year.

As part of my "Be Strong" project, I’ve been reading one book a month that deals with an aspect of inner strength.  My latest read was Susan Cain’s book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking. Never has a book summed up who I am more than this book.

I now understand why I don’t have the gift of gab, why words don’t magically roll off my tongue helping me through the tough conversations. I remember the countless closed door meetings I was called into with my company’s former VP of Sales. He would point to a number on one of my spreadsheets and ask why. Why was this number not what he had anticipated? Instead of coming up with the answer, my brain would freeze; I'd assume I had made a mistake and offer to look into it. It was only after I'd left his office and was returning to my own that the answer would come to me. Why wasn't I able to think on my feet?

Susan Cain describes introversion as a person’s response to stimulation, including social stimulation. Introverts prefer lower-stimulation environments, where they feel their most alive. Whereas extroverts crave stimulation in order to feel at their best.

Every personality test I've ever taken has pegged me as an introvert, but it wasn't until I read this book that I truly understood what being an introvert meant to my daily life.  When I'm put on the spot I need time, usually alone, to think through my answer. I like to methodically formulate a response, weigh all of my options making sure I give the best or most accurate response.  I need down time to replenish my energy after overstimulation.  I think of all the conferences I’ve attended where after a long day I've been tempted to skip the social mixer so I could go back to my room to read and decompress.

I've often been embarrassed by introverted personality:
For example, in my post Discovering My Strengths here are my thoughts upon initially learning of my five strengths:
I was not pleased with the results of my assessment. My first reaction was "I thought this assessment was going to teach me something I didn’t know." I was hoping my strengths would be a little more glamorous. The above so called talents were the same traits I’ve been trying to overcome since I was the geeky uncool nerd in high school. I shut my computer off in disgust.
We live in a world that values extroverts:
According to Susan Cain:
It makes sense that so many introverts hide from themselves. We live with a value system that I call the Extrovert Ideal - the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha, and comfortable in the spotlight. The archetypal extrovert prefers action to contemplation, risk-taking to head-talking, certainty to doubt. He prefers quick decisions at the risk of being wrong. She works well in teams and socializes in groups. (Pg. 4)
The Communication Gap:
Then there was the time my company's HR Manager attacked my management skills.  She told me I was the weakest manager our company had and that my career was going nowhere.  Now in hindsight I realize she is an extrovert who doesn't understand or respect the introverted personality. She considered my quiet manner weak and not management material.

In the book Susan, also an introvert writes about the first time she had to negotiate a deal for her client while working as a Wall Street lawyer:
Then she remembered what I'd told her again and again: she was an introvert and as such had unique powers in negotiation - perhaps less obvious but no less formidable.  She's probably prepared more than everyone else.  She had a quiet but firm speaking style. She rarely spoke without thinking. Being mild-mannered, she could take strong, even aggressive, positions while coming across as perfectly reasonable. And she tended to ask questions - lots of them. And actually listen to the answers, which no matter what your personality, is crucial to strong negotiation. (Pg. 8)
Pretending to be an extrovert:
Now that I have a better understanding of who I am and what it means to be an introvert how can I reframe my strengths to shine in a world that values extroverts?

Pretend to be more confident:
When Susan was in law school she would force herself early on in class to raise her hand and say something.  Other people would sometimes refer to what she said giving her a greater presence in the classroom without her having to say much.  (I really could have used this tip when I was in college.)


Be Prepared:
When in the classroom or work meetings figure out what you are going to say and say it early.

Look for opportunities to have one-on-one conversations.

Ask questions. Lots of them. Listen to the answers.

Carve out restorative niches into throughout your day:
Leave the office during lunch.  Find a quiet spot to read and reflect.

Manage your energy.

Get thru it - you will come out a little stronger:
Shortly after reading Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking I had to facilitate an eight hour training session at my organization. Twelve employees were in attendance including our President and VP of Operations both of which are extroverts.  I was the speaker for four of the eight hours. It was held two hours away and I was one of the drivers. Three employees piled into my car the morning of, so I did not have an opportunity to decompress before the training.  

I prepared for two full days prior to the training; practicing what I was going to say, preparing handouts and packets for everyone to review as I presented the information.  Despite my preparation my brain still froze a couple of times during my presentation. When I wasn't able to think of the interest term our vendor uses when we don't follow one of their procedures, our extroverted President jumped in and volunteered "exorbitant." Then the phrase came to me "past due." I asked lots of questions giving me a break from speaking and allowing everyone to provide input and learn from each other.  The training was deemed a success and our President has asked me to organize another one for October.

What is next?
So now I realize, "thinking on my feet" is never going to come natural to me and I will always have to work at it. I am now going to change the focus of my Be Strong" project to incorporating Susan's faking-it strategies into my life.

Are you an introvert?  Do you pretend to be an extrovert?  Do you have suggestions for carving out restorative niches or for helping me maintain my energy during the workday?

Please note, I am an Amazon affiliate
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Sunday, May 12, 2013

How to make the most of your social security benefits

I recently attended a social security workshop that changed my views on when a retiree should begin collecting social security benefits. We’ve all heard the rumors, “Start collecting as soon as possible, before the Social Security fund runs out of money” or “don’t wait to collect benefits - if you die early you will lose out on retirement money you’ve earned.”

Here is what I learned at the workshop:

Despite the grim outlook politicians and the media like to portray, the social security fund actually has sufficient reserves to pay out full benefits until 2036. After that if nothing else changes additional tax income will cover at least 77% of promised benefits from 2036 to 2085.

This means a person who is age 55 today probably won’t have to worry about benefits changing until age 79 at the earliest. Future changes that may occur include:
  • Increased Social Security tax rates.
  • Higher earnings maximum subject to Social Security Tax.
  • Increase of Full Retirement Age
  • Decrease of future retirement benefits
  • Reduction of future Cost of Living Adjustments (COLAs)
Why should someone consider delaying benefits?
For people born in 1943 or later, each year you delay receiving social security your benefit increases by 8% per year up to age 70. After age 70, there is no additional monetary gain for waiting. Where else can you get a guaranteed 8% increase in earnings?  

Unlike many pension plans Social Security is adjusted for COLA:
Social Security payments are adjusted each year to keep up with inflation, as measured by the Consumer Price Index. Since automatic cost-of-living adjustments were added to Social Security in 1975, they have ranged from 14.3% in 1980 to zero in 2010 and 2011. The 2012 COLA increase was 1.7%. It is important to note some pension plans do not come with a COLA adjustment. Thus, a monthly pension payment that seems sufficient in 2013 may not go nearly as far in 2033.

You and your spouse should work together to make the most of your benefits:

The “Spousal Benefit”:
A married person who has little or no earnings history can receive spousal benefits equal to half of the working spouse’s primary insurance amount (PIA). 

- You must be age 62 or older to qualify.
- You can’t collect a spousal benefit until your spouse files for their own benefit.
- Your benefit will be reduced if taken before full retirement age, but it won’t increase if delayed past full retirement age.

The “File and Suspend” Strategy:
This strategy works best for the married couple who has one spouse with little or no earnings history. Begin by comparing the benefit this spouse would receive on their own to what they would receive for a spousal benefit; if the spousal benefit is higher consider the following strategy:

The higher-earning spouse files for social security at full retirement age then immediately suspends benefits. Once this spouse files, the lower earning spouse is entitled to 50% of the higher wage spouse's benefit. 

This strategy increases the lower wage-earner's monthly benefits now. It also allows the other spouse to wait until full-retirement age, increasing their benefit in the interim. Plus, it allows the lower wage earning spouse to receive the maximum survivor benefit.

The “Claim Now, Claim More Later” Strategy:
In this strategy the lower wage earner begins receiving his or her own reduced benefit.  The high wage earner files at full-retirement age for the spousal benefit. When this higher-wage earner reaches 70, he or she should switch to their own higher benefit. Note both spouses can’t receive spousal benefits on each other’s record at the same time. For this to work, the high-wage earner may not file for their own benefits before full-retirement age.

This strategy allows the low wage earner to start receiving benefits as early as possible. It allows the high-wage earner to receive a monthly benefit between the ages of 66 and 70 without having to reduce their own benefit. Plus, this allows the lower wage earning spouse to receive the maximum survivor benefit.

The Strategy for Two High-Earning Spouses:
One of the spouses files for the spousal benefit at Full-Retirement Age. Then switches to their own benefit at age 70. By collecting only a spousal benefit, this spouse can receive benefits at full-retirement age and still allow their own benefit to grow to its maximum.
The "Pay Back Strategy" is no longer allowed:
Previously you were allowed to begin collecting benefits at age 62 and then were able to pay all the dollars you had collected back, and restart your benefit at a new higher amount. As of December 2010, you are only allowed to do this if you change your mind and pay back benefits within the first 12 months of starting your social security retirement benefits.

The break-even age for collecting benefits at age 62 vs. full-retirement age is 78:
If you are in good health and have longevity in your family history, you will be better off in the long run to wait until full-retirement age to begin receiving benefits. 

I don’t think my husband and I will be able to utilize any of the above strategies, other than putting off collecting social security as long as possible, but I feel it is important to know what is available.

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Thursday, May 02, 2013

Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman

Motivation for Reading:
I decided to read Robert K. Massie’s book Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman when Michelle of That's What She Read responded to my comment on her review of the book with:
You will love it as it definitely fits in with your theme of empowering women. Catherine was one amazing woman.
What is Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman about?
At almost 600 pages, Massie has written an all-encompassing biography of Catherine the Great beginning with her childhood in Germany and ending with her death at the age of 67.

My thoughts:
Since the book is so long, the thought of reading it seemed daunting, but Massie created such an engaging story I had no trouble finishing it. Prior to reading this book, I knew almost nothing about Catherine the Great or Russian history. I found every page to be fascinating – including the historical events and the politics of the time. Catherine’s story is remarkable:

If this book would have been fiction I’d have set it aside thinking it was implausible
Catherine, an obscure Russian princess, travels from her home in Germany to Russia with the intention of marrying Peter, the Russian heir to the throne. After their wedding her primary role was to produce a male heir. This ends up being impossible since her new husband refuses to touch her, preferring to play with his toy soldiers in their bed. This scenario continues for nine years. Finally, in order to produce an heir, Catherine has an affair with another man. Catherine bears a son whom the Empress names Paul. She then has the new baby taken from his mother and raises him as if he is her own. Once Peter becomes Emperor he ends the popular war with Prussia and institutes domestic policies that infuriate the military, the Orthodox Church and the Russian people. Catherine along with her current lover and his friends are able to overthrow Peter and Catherine becomes Empress. She reins until her death 34 years later. 
Why Catherine deserved the title of "Great:"
Elizabeth I of England was the only woman equal to Catherine on a European throne. In Russia's history, Catherine and Peter the Great tower in ability and achievement over all the other tsars and empresses of the Romanov dynasty. Catherine's accomplishments include two successful wars against the Ottoman Empire expanding Russia’s borders to the Black Sea and Central Europe. She was the first person in Russia to be inoculated against smallpox then persuaded others to do so.   She imported European moral, political, judicial philosophy, literature, art, architecture, sculpture, medicine, and education. She assembled the greatest art gallery in Europe, hospitals, schools, and orphanages. Peter made Russia a great power.  Catherine magnified this power and advanced the nation toward a culture that during the century that followed produced many of the artistic masters Russia is known for today.
What was her secret? How was she able to accomplish so much?

She was able to conceal her pride:
Her mother, not wanting her daughter to be arrogant or rebellious decided “to drive the devil of pride out of her.”
She was repeatedly told she was ugly and impertinent, forbidden to speak unless spoken to and made to kiss the hem of the skirts of all visiting women of rank. Later, concealment of pride in humility came to be recognized as a deliberate and useful tactic which Catherine used when confronting crisis and danger. (Pg. 9)
She used every opportunity to improve herself and her situation:
It did not take Catherine long to understand two underlying facts about her position in Russia:
First, that it was Elizabeth, not Peter whom she had to please: and, second if she wanted to succeed in this country she must learn its language and practice its religious faith. (Pg. 52) 

During the 17 years Catherine spent in Russia prior to Empress Elizabeth’s death, she spent her time reading. Assigned with the task of producing a male heir she spent much of this time ignored by or bored by her husband: books were her refuge. She always kept a book in her room and carried another in her pocket. She studied the great philosophers. Guided by her own curiosity, gradually she acquired a superior education. (Pg. 145)
She aligned herself with the right people:
Over the years Catherine made herself more popular than Peter with the Russian Courtiers and the Russian people. With the help of her lover Gregory Orlov and his brother Alexis, she won over the allegiance of the Russian Army giving her the support of the military. She made calculated moves when determining which countries to form alliances with and to support and which to not. I thought it interesting that she choose not to aid Great Britain in their war with the American colonies.

She understood who held the real power:
In a conversation V.S. Popov had with the Empress she explains the blind obedience with which her will was fulfilled everywhere, of the eagerness and zeal with which all tried to please her. It is not as easy as you think.” She replied. In the first place, my orders would not be carried out unless they were the kind of orders which could be carried out. You know with what prudence and circumspection I act in the promulgation of my laws. I examine the circumstanced, I take advice. I consult the enlightened part of the people, and in this way I find out what sort of effect my laws will have. And when I am already convinced in advance of good approval, then I issue my orders and have the pleasure of observing what you call blind obedience.

That is the foundation of unlimited power. But, believe me; they will not obey blindly when orders are not adapted to the opinion of the people.” (Pgs. 172-173)

Despite being a "great" ruler she was held to a double standard:
According to Massie, Catherine had 12 lovers during her reign who were referred to as favorites.  What shocked her contemporaries was not the number, but the age difference between Catherine and her lovers. She preferred increasingly younger men. She wanted assurance she could still attract and keep a man's love. In return the young men sought ambition, desire for prestige, wealth and power.  Hmm...weren't kings and their mistresses doing this exact thing for centuries?

Book club recommendation:
Massie informs us Elizabeth I of England used virginity and abstinence as prizes to tempt and manipulate powerful men.  Wouldn't reading a biography of Elizabeth make an excellent companion read?

Bottom Line:
I highly recommend Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman to anyone who wants to learn more about Catherine the Great, Russian history or to just read about an amazing self-built woman who was truly Great.

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Please note, I am an Amazon affiliate