CategoryCommunication Skills

Ten Observations of Human Behavior and Learning

As a writer, I read a lot of books and articles, listen closely to how people talk, and take notes to capture ideas, lunch orders, and fun phrases. Here are ten observations and quotes from my scribblings with thoughts on how or why I found each to be helpful (or incomplete).

  1. Often, there is a “better” way to do things. It doesn’t really matter if you put your pants on with the leg left first or the right, but it is easier to put your pants on before your shoes. Early in my forestry career, I attended a “total quality management” workshop and Wayne, the instructor, drove home the point that there is often a “best” or “better” way to do a job, no matter your preference. “That’s called a good process. We’ve figured out better ways to use a chainsaw or drive truck, ways that are safer and more productive, so master those.” 
  2. A former Navy officer turned forest industry manager told me “As long as you have a cup of coffee in your hand or are carrying a clipboard, nobody makes you do anything.” In my experience, this reality holds up remarkably, unfortunately well.
  3. The only real security we have is the certainty that we’re equipped to handle whatever happens to us. I made this note after reading “Beyond Survival”, a book I’ve discussed before, by former Vietnam POW Gerald Coffee. This speaks to the importance of competence, self-awareness, and resilience. 
  4. Fill your days with activities that excite you. This is simply good advice. While we all have responsibilities and obligations, we can also have hobbies, friends, service, and work that, for at least part of each day, energize us. And if this is not the case, whose fault is that?
  5. Self-trust is the first secret to success.” So said Ralph Waldo Emerson. The quote speaks to both the power of being comfortable in our own skin and the destructive nature of persistent self-doubt, anxiety, and insecurity, which all differ from humility. Having self-awareness and self-trust means you know how to handle yourself in most situations (see #3 above). 
  6. Kind words can be short and easy to speak, but their echoes are truly endless.” – Mother Teresa.
  7. Avoid leaving good habits to chance. Since we are what we regularly do, we gain by scheduling and ritualizing productive habits, such as sleep, exercise, and date night to help reduce and crowd out less helpful activities, such as scrolling and stewing on social media.
  8. When we deal in specifics, we rarely fail. On the other hand, we rarely succeed when dealing in generalities. As an analyst, writer, and human, I find unsubstantiated, broad-based assertions to be extremely unhelpful.
  9. Learning is spaced repetition. I hold this belief as ironclad: we can get better at anything we practice regularly. However, since becoming a passable juggler and failing (so far) at piano, I observe that, while accurate, the lesson is incomplete. In addition to regular practice, we learn when (1) truly interested and (2) having sufficient understanding to “self-correct” basic errors. Once you learn enough to self-correct, you can become proficient at just about anything.
  10. Many things are more complicated and nuanced than we think. I find it helpful to acknowledge that (1) most decisions are made without certainty and (2) any increase in knowledge can (ironically) further increase uncertainty as it lays bare potential gaps in our understanding. As such, strong emotions, broad generalizations (see #8), and a failure to embrace proven approaches (see #1) can unnecessarily burden decisions. Embrace the idea that we’re doing the best we can with the information we have. Nothing is certain. As new information comes to light, we can adjust. 

One Rule for Performance Reviews: No Surprises

Regular performance reviews, while often criticized, offer a repeatable and transparent process for building more effective organizations. Systems and teams, big and small, require feedback to adjust and improve. Sports have scores, cars have speedometers and engine lights, and businesses have financials. Issues arise when appraisals or feedback occur inconsistently or without clear expectations. Regular reviews, when done well, support and serve the needs of both employees and managers.

No Surprises

No surprises! This is the fundamental tenant for ongoing manager/employee relations. You don’t fire people at performance reviews. You highlight, reinforce, appreciate, and coach. You agree on priorities. You listen. We owe it to our teams to avoid surprises. This starts on Day One for a new employee.

When you hire someone, you get their standard of performance, so it’s the role of the manager to clarify expectations.[1] How do we to this? First, define success. Second, agree on what success looks like when it is delivered. Third, confirm how it will be measured and when. Weekly meetings help support this.

Weekly Meetings

Brief, weekly meetings are a fundamental building block for two-way communication. They keep the line open and the temperature down. If your direct reports are not important enough to meet with regularly, then who is? Weekly check-ins establish a pattern and provide milestones. They show you care about the individual and their results. This process also provides structure for the manager, who should be tracking successes and things to review with each direct report on an ongoing basis. 

One of my direct reports role-modeled for me how to manage our check-ins based on how she manages her team. Now, my weekly process with each person includes the following three questions:

  • Personal: How are you doing?
  • Current projects: What are you working on? (And what’s on the horizon?)
  • Support and resources: What do you need? How can I support you?

If I have specific items to cover, they typically line up with something the person wants to discuss anyway. If not, I will raise the issue when we discuss current activities.

The impact of feedback is greatest when received close to the behavior in question. While better late than never, delayed feedback withholds from the person an opportunity to improve. And if you don’t communicate feedback at all, the issue remains yours, not theirs. Regular meetings help mitigate this.


Successful managers provide timely and constructive feedback to their employees and colleagues. They deal with tough issues quickly. Employees in these businesses know that performance is valued, and underperformance will be dealt with. Don’t let things fester; handle issues as they arise, acknowledge effort and performance, and focus on actions not people. As a manager, you get the performance you deserve. Regular check-ins keep the stakes low, minimize surprises, and strengthen the team.

[1] My essay “Notes on Managing a Business” includes this and other lessons related to communicating effectively at work and leading a team.

Three Reasons to Pick Up a Pen and Write


Deciding to leverage your lived moments into wisdom, insight, and appreciation rather than choosing the passive habit of regurgitating op-eds or puffery means engaging directly with people and ideas. Forwarding a link or liking a post differs from thinking and creating. An active, original mind stitches together a swatch of learning here with our lived experience there to grow and serve.

When it comes to capturing, conceptualizing, and thinking through ideas, few approaches compete with the act of writing. Just as the wisest people I know read a lot, the most creative and thoughtful people I know write regularly as part of their professional or personal lives. In this post, I encourage you to take up the pen and write.

Three Reasons to Write

First, writing cultivates a fertile mind. For example, the simple act of journaling collects thoughts and observations and, when you close the pages for the day, allows them to mix and mingle while you trundle off to conduct your daily affairs. Then, when decisions arise, the wisdom and experiences captured in the journal have a way of synthesizing our experiences. The act of writing lets those ideas simmer, helping us gain wisdom distilled from our own lives.

This blog and my essays are exercises to refine thoughts and capture best practices. They force me to cull the nonessential and reflect on what works and makes sense with the goal of receiving and sharing insights. In this way, writing is a dialogue; it seeks a response.

Second, writing relieves the mind. At times, we get trapped in mental mousetraps, addictively griping over minor grievances, or stubbornly ruminating on things outside of our control. The writing process offers powerful medicine for thinking through a problem in a practical way without perseverating.

The physicality of typing or writing by hand warms ideas and mines the subconscious. It also provides a form of self-administered relief. In The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron recommends a practice of “morning pages,” which are “three pages of stream-of-consciousness longhand morning writing” that help us clear the mental detritus before taking on the day. Cameron notes that:

“…The morning pages…must be experienced in order to be explained, just as reading a book about jogging is not the same as putting on your Nikes and heading out…”

Third, writing armors you for battle. Regular writing sharpens your language and strengthens your communication skills. Great leaders and orators, from Winston Churchill to John F. Kennedy to Martin Luther King, Jr built their philosophies and communication skills through reading and writing. Gerald Ford, 38th President of the United States, said:

“If I went back to college again, I’d concentrate on two areas: learning to write and to speak before an audience. Nothing in life is more important than the ability to communicate effectively.”


Write stuff down. If journaling or letter writing are not your thing, at least carry a pen and notebook for meetings, calls, work conferences, and events at your kids’ schools.  Write down ideas, lessons, and things you want to do. The writing process organizes ideas, identifies questions, and exposes holes. Your value as a thinker, regardless your field, will improve. 

In sum, put pen to paper and build the writing muscle. You will use more of what you write, verbatim, than you ever could realize.

How to Say No (When You Know What You Want)

My Dad taught me the importance of keeping the “end in mind” when managing time. As a result, I pause and think before accepting an invitation. In business school, a friend teased me about this habit, but it was rooted in an understanding of my calendar and my process for getting my reading and work in.[1] With clear priorities and goals, having approaches for saying “no” with respect and rigor keeps your time properly allocated.

No is a resource allocation tool to meet your goals.

However, choosing “no” differs from saying “no.” There are many ways to get the message across. We have options in how we communicate choices. Remember the goal: get to where you want to be, whether at home writing or in bed sleeping or pumping iron at the gym. Just begin with the end in mind.

Three Ways to Say No

  • Leverage the calendar. The calendar documents commitments and obligations. For me, things that don’t make the calendar, whether a workout or deadline or date night, don’t really exist. With an invite, using a calendar provides a reliable, respected, and repeatable process. 
    • “Let me check the date on our calendar and get back to you…”
    • “I would love to help, but I…am booked that day…have a deadline…made a commitment.”
  • Have a policy. For example, at Forisk, we only consult with firms that subscribe to our research. Having clear rules provides clarity and simplicity, and most folks and firms respect this.
    • “That’s past my 9pm bedtime.”
    • “We don’t work on Saturdays.” 
  • Leave the decision with someone else. Typically, we do not operate in vacuums.
    • “My coach…wife…boss…astrologer sets the schedule. Let me check in and get back to you…”

Keep It Simple

Avoid detailed reasons or rambling. Thank the person for the invite, say you’re unable to make it and move on. “Thank you and good luck. Hope the event is a great success!” And you mean that. Be polite; avoid abruptness. It’s simply an offer to respectfully decline because it does not fit with your schedule (and your schedule is set by your priorities, in advance, but you don’t need to get into that story….)

If you want, offer an alternative, which can also create an opportunity for someone else. “Hey, I can’t make this, but Phil on our team would be great for this. If okay with you, let me check with him on his availability…” This can help everyone, as Phil may really appreciate this, too.


Know your priorities. Use a calendar. Grow the ability to say “no” with grace and integrity. Having reliable and respectful ways to say decline invitations saves time, maintains relationships, and keeps you on track. 

“People are effective because they say ‘no,’ because they say, ‘this isn’t for me.’”

Peter Drucker

[1] I HATE going back on obligations, so it was a defensive mechanism, as well.

Write Thank-You Notes

Writing personal thank-you notes remains an effective way to stand out in the workplace. Thank-you notes send several messages, all good. They demonstrate professionalism, appreciation, and good manners. After an interview, they reinforce your communication skills and interest. These notes strengthen relationships with potential employers, clients, and colleagues. Thank-you notes document gratitude.

Write Notes Regularly

When do we write thank-you notes? Often. At a minimum, write thank-you notes (1) after participating in interviews; (2) after receiving gifts; (3) to acknowledge favors (such as referrals); and (4) to thank colleagues for work well done.  Thank-you notes acknowledge the value of what someone else did for you and the team.

We have warmer feelings towards – and are more predisposed to help again – those who thank us with personal notes. After participating in a forestry job fair, I received a thoughtful note from the president of the local Society of American Foresters student chapter. Would I be willing to support their efforts again? You bet.

Choose Your Paper

Use good judgment in choosing the ‘raw material’ for your notes. After a job interview, write thank-you notes on personal letterhead or simple note cards. To thank someone for a gift, an informational interview or support, the note can be written on company letterhead or on personal or plain notepaper.

However, if you interview for a job at ACME Wildlife Services while working for the Timber Journal, avoid writing thank-you notes on Timber Journal letterhead. On the other hand, if you interview an ACME Wildlife executive for an article you are writing for the Timber Journal, it’s entirely appropriate to use Timber Journal letterhead. [The point may seem obvious, but people make the mistake…]

Be Prepared

Often, I travel with a few note cards, envelopes, and stamps to write thank-you notes from my hotel room or on an airplane. For friends or family, I have used hotel letterhead and, in a pinch, cut my own postcards from the individual sized cereal boxes available at some breakfast bars. [They work Gr-r-reat!]

Worthy thank-you notes are direct, timely, accurate, and signed.  They explicitly say, “thank you” and specify the source of your gratitude. They are written promptly and spell accurately the name of the recipient. And they include your signature; an unsigned thank-you note is a glorified form letter. 


In certain situations (and increasingly), thank-you emails suffice. This is true for longstanding relationships, when your note includes attachments or links discussed in the interview, when firms view email as a preferred form of communication or where your contacts with an individual all use email. 


My parents taught me that people read and appreciate thank-you notes. Time and time again, my experiences have validated this lesson. Writing personal notes in a timely manner will distinguish you and reinforce business and personal relationships throughout your career.