Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Out of Your Comfort Zone

One of the requirements of my job is that I interact with clients from time to time. Usually this takes the form of answering their questions about the data we sell them; every now and then they want to talk to us on the phone. I've also met them in meetings or at conferences, but that is, of course, not enough.

No, we're expected to give presentations at some point. That can be at conferences or in client meetings, but my card is marked: I will have occasion to stand in front of telecoms industry people and spout my ill-informed opinions at them. It has been decreed.

Frankly, this is the only way to get any sense out of me.

To that end, I spent the last two days in a training session designed to give me the knowledge and skills to do just that. When I signed up this summer, I was kind of dreading it, because (let's be honest) everybody is kind of expected to.

In the event, when I was able to break it down into specific and discrete techniques (eye contact with one person, deliver one thought to them and then move on, etc), it felt a lot more doable. It was still nerve-wracking to stand in front of strangers and hold forth about various topics, but not as bad as I'd thought (and clearly not as bad as some of the others on my course found it; one or two looked like they were ready to start crying). It also proves my suspicion about myself, that if I can break a task into its component parts, then I find it a lot easier.

But the most important thing I took from it came from something the instructor said on day one (yesterday). One of my colleagues was saying how the techniques felt strange or uncomfortable, and the instructor - a tiny French lady who reminded me of various language teachers I had in high school - said that of course the techniques would feel strange, because we've never used them before. The implication being that it isn't a bad thing to get out of your comfort zone from time to time.

I've been thinking about this idea a lot recently, because it applies to my life in two specific areas, and because I've heard the same advice with regard to at least one of these areas. The areas I'm talking about, incidentally, are dating and health.

My main problem with dating is the same as almost everyone else's, namely that I'm not doing enough of it. I've done some reading on non-creepy and non-assholish ways to increase the number of dates that I go on, and done a lot of thinking about more ways to meet women. At the same time, intriguingly, ITV here in the UK has been showing the 40-Year-Old Virgin a lot in recent months; apart from being a really funny movie, it also dovetails nicely with a lot of the stuff I've been thinking about lately.

What a champ.

Its relevance for our purposes, incidentally, is when Andy (Steve Carell) complains that all of the stuff his friends are telling him don't feel right, and Jay (Romany Malco) answers that these things don't feel right because what he is comfortable with hasn't been working. If we ignore for a second that a lot of Jay's advice is pretty terrible, not to say misogynistic, that one insight is spot-on.

When I was training for my marathon, I started having serious pains in my knees, to the point where I wouldn't be able to walk for a couple of days afterward (which is pretty terrible, when you consider I was only running for an hour at a time). When I told my trainer, she looked at my posture and immediately zeroed in on how I stand with my feet turned outward. She suggested I walk with my feet pointing straight, and in the first few weeks of this I kept thinking about that line from the movie: Walking this way feels weird, but it only feels weird because they way I've been walking up until now was wrong.

In any event, changing the way I walk and stretching those muscles helped a lot, to the point where my knees were actually fine after I ran the marathon; the worst-hit parts of my body were my lower back and my leg muscles.

So, to wrap up a long and rambling set of insights, I've been thinking a lot about this business of getting out of your comfort zone. It seems like a lot of people are unwilling to do it (me included), and it feels like there are people out there who are happy to encourage you to stay within your comfort zone. Stick with what you know, right?

But all the reading I'm doing, and all the advice I'm hearing, says the opposite. And when you think about it, it should be obvious that trying new things, that make you uncomfortable, is how you grow as a person. Maybe not everybody sees it that way, but I'm increasingly convinced it's the only way to go.

Which means, I guess, that it's time to hit the singles bars. Who's up for it?

Monday, 3 December 2012

Dude, spoiler!

It's funny how often that phrase gets thrown around these days.

I was reading the AV Club this morning before heading to work, and clicked on the review for Joe Abercrombie's new book, Red Country (which - spoiler alert - I'm likely to be getting for Christmas). So far, so good - the reviewer seemed to like what Abercrombie was doing, but then he revealed the true identity of one of the characters; a pretty big reveal.

It kind of bothered me. I've been wondering what happened to this character for a while, so it's a little disappointing to have the twist revealed so blithely. I tried to rationalize it away, thinking maybe it's dealt with early on, but even then it's not cool - wherever the reveal falls in the novel, now I'm going to be looking for it and waiting it, rather than trundling along and letting it hit me.

But this post isn't so much about that, as about the whole spoiler "thing" that's going on in the culture right now. Everybody reacts differently, from the people who don't seem to care to the people who refuse to listen to conversations about Argo because they don't want to know what happens at the end (seriously: I haven't even seen it and I know how the Iranian hostage crisis turned out, if not the whole business about a fake movie; but a coworker insisted on not hearing even that spoiler).

I'd say there are two factors leading to this rise of "dude, spoiler!" that I'm talking about. One is the increase in heavily serialized entertainment (eg Lost), and the other is the increase in conversation about this entertainment on the internet. Wander into the wrong corner of the internet, and you'll find out what happened on the island, who lives or dies in the Walking Dead, or who got elected president at the end of the West Wing.

This comes up quite often, unsurprisingly, on the Nerdist podcasts. Chris Hardwick and the gang have chatted to JJ Abrams, Robert Kirkman, Damon Lindelof and loads of others involved in these big "now" shows, so inevitably things slip out. I've basically stopped listening to podcasts involving the Walking Dead, so that I can eventually watch the show in peace; same with Lost and Mad Men.

So what's the etiquette? I think Chris Hardwick has it mostly right - Lost has been off the air for years, so someone (like me) who hasn't seen it all yet has to take the responsibility in avoiding spoilers. On the other hand, with reviews of movies or books, it's best if the writer signposts that he or she will be revealing key plot points, because the assumption is that people haven't yet seen or read the item in question.

I got some disbelieving looks in the office when I objected to my coworkers spoiling parts of the new Bond film, Skyfall, only a week after it was released. But not everybody can get to the theater at the same time, as I pointed out (we've compromised on Homeland: whenever they start talking about that show I go and hide out in the kitchen or something). In any case, Skyfall was ruined for me even more by being boring and not very well written, so I can't really hold it against the folks in the office.

So when's it acceptable to reveal a plot point? Ie, in what cases, and at what remove from the movie or book's release?