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Bryan Miller

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The Slippery Slope of Facts . . . as we are Conditioned to Know Them . . .

Beware of the facts! Photo by  rawpixel  on  Unsplash

Beware of the facts! Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

The Slippery Slope

Circa 1975. I was starting high school (Yes, I’m that old!), and with a particular interest in all things science, I looked forward to delving further into physical science, chemistry, and biology. I was intrigued by the things I had already learned about the world and how science could help us understand the world. Little did I know that the facts I learned then . . . would change! To wit:

  • The electron “is the smallest particle in the universe.”

  • We are facing a new ice age.

  • We only have 50 years left of fossil fuel.

  • We will be unable to feed the world population by the year 2000.

Today, science tells us . . .

  • Quarks are smaller than electrons.

  • We need to be worried about global warming . . . no, . . . wait, . . . climate change.

  • We still are going to run out of fossil fuel . . . and besides it is destroying the Ozone.

  • Water is going to become a major crisis for the world.

I’m not here to dispute or challenge the scientific dogma, old or new, or the merits of each of these theories, I just note it to say, “the facts have changed!” Some would argue, correctly I believe, that this change is exactly what science is supposed to do! Change as new knowledge and better models are discovered. I agree. But others would see a more sinister pushing of agendas that might have other motives. Perhaps this too is true.

In either case, it illustrates that far too often theories are confounded with proven facts. My teachers, in 1975, made this error. Presumably they had been taught that scientific theories and data are only consistent with projections and are not, in and of themselves, facts . . . but that is not how it was presented. It was presented as a scientific certainty. It proved not to be true and it is still happening today.

Blame it on lazy thinking, poor educational systems, a lack of higher education . . . what ever you will, but again I am not hear to debate those theories but to talk about the slippery slope of facts as it relates to business.

Businesses, Organizations and Facts

One of the greatest challenges to helping businesses and organizations change is what “they already know.” Einstein encased the problem of “knowing” succinctly in his oft quoted adage, “We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them.” When working with leaders one of the tell-tale signs of whether an “outside consultant” can help is if they are willing to have what is known challenged and if they are actively looking for new ways to approach the problems. If not, they are doomed to repeat the cycle that produced and sustain the problem.

Sounds easy enough, doesn’t it? The problem is, most leaders think they are open to questioning the facts as they know them—and I think they honestly believe they are. However, too often, years of conditioned responses makes them resistant to change.

The Power of Conditioning

To illustrate the power of the conditioning, I will at times, after meeting with them for some period of time, raise my hand and extend it toward the leader. Instinctively, they will raise their hand to meet mine. Then I ask them why they did that . . . “well, you wanted to shake hands,” they reply. “Did I? Did you?” I set this up after we have talked a while specifically because a handshake is not expected at that time. We didn’t just meet and it’s not time for the social practice of shaking hands, but the leader didn’t consider if some other response would be better—other than a passing thought of confusion— or if the gesture could be something other than an expectation of a hand shake; they are just responding to years and years of conditioning.

Leader’s lead in ways they have been conditioned to lead. Do the facts lead them to exert control? To lead by being inclusive? To work for warm relations and a collegial approach to team building. Why? Too often, they really can’t explain their approach because, like the handshake, it is an unconscious and conditioned response.

But it works! Until it doesn’t.

I’m not really being critical of leaders. We all operate on conditioned responses. it’s what makes the world operate smoothly. My mind is not cluttered up with analyzing each and every “handshake” to determine what to do. I don’t have to think when the brake lights come on ahead of me, my foot automatically moves to the brake pedal.

Leaders are elevated to their positions because their conditioned responses are affective. An impulse to shake hands when one is extended to you is a social “grace” that eases the awkward meeting of two people. But, ever know someone who keeps wanting to shake hands? I did.

One school I attended had a student I’ll call Gary. Gary had a habit of shaking your hand, then repeatedly reaching out again, through the conversation, to shake your hand again. Alternately, he would simply continue to grasp your hand and not let go. Talk about awkward. What do you do? Many people, myself included, tried passive ways to try and extricate our hand, or avoid the multiple handshakes. Some, I have no doubt, avoided Gary. I’ll admit, I at times, wanted to as well. Those additional handshakes when unwarranted, creates an awkward barrier to further relationship building.

I personally was stuck by the “facts” as I knew them. One, people interacting with Gary had certainly “indicated” — with their behavior and words — that this handshaking behavior was unusual and an unwanted behavior. I had personally witnessed another student respond with “Let go of my hand! What’s wrong with you?” Two, Gary probably did not need anyone else making him feel like he was a “problem” and “unliked” and that “knowledge” had not stopped the behavior. Three, I wanted to be a good person and treat people, even if their behavior made me feel uncomfortable, in a respectful way. Accommodating Gary’s strange behavior did no harm and actually was helpful. Right? The facts, as I viewed them, led me to be passively engaged with Gary and ignore what was really happening . . . that Gary’s behavior made me, and many other’s uncomfortable, and to “be kind” — pretending I was not uncomfortable and not talking directly to Gary about these facts with kindness and the real respect he was due.

The solution came in the form of an older, and wiser, man — a school professor. A man whose interaction with Gary I got to witness. After shaking the professor’s hand, Gary, predictably, extended his hand, again, to the professor. “Why do you want to shake my hand again?” the professor asked. His voice was quiet. His tone warm and sympathetic. I had no doubt that if Gary had suddenly come up with an honest and insightful answer—”I’ve never felt like people like me and shaking hands make me feel accepted” or “I’m sorry I have a compulsion and it sometimes gets the best of me” — the professor would have been willing to shake his hand a second time. Unfortunately, Gary looked uncomfortable. He stammered out an answer or excuse, and shuffled away.

Afterward, I notice that Gary’s handwringing exercise diminished. Had he considered what the professor had asked? Had he learned something about himself and the conditioned responses he had learned? I don’t know. I do know the problem was largely resolved.

The professor, in my view, was the one person I witnessed who had the courage to be both kind and honest. He was not thinking about how Gary would view him or how it might affect how others would view him as a professor. He did what was in Gary’s best interest, period.

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P.S. Ironically — isn’t life funny? — the day before I finished this post, I had another “handshaking” incident. a young man I know and admire, but who suffers from a significantly anxious temperament, was bidding me goodbye. In that process, over 5-10 minutes, he extended his hand at least three times. Caught off guard, I shook it each time. Now, the challenge is, “Do I talk to him about it?” Chances are the answer will be, “Yes!”

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Mr. Rex and Ego?

Photo by  Vern Ooi  on  Unsplash

Photo by Vern Ooi on Unsplash

The Best Team Players? They know It's not about them.

Those of you who participated in athletics know that, as an athlete, you get to experience a lot of real time "psychology on display through behavior" as player's egos become involved in competing. Hopefully, for most people, the need to "stroke one's ego" gets resolved by the time we reach adulthood . . . but not always.

A few yeas ago I was playing "noon basketball" with a cadre of guys at a local gym. One of the amazing things about this group was that two of the most talented players were over 70!  Yes, 70! By "most talented" I don't mean that they had the most stamina, speed, or leaping ability when compared to the younger players,  but boy did they have skills and the experience to be a great asset to whatever team they played for.!  Both still played on traveling teams against player across the nation. Very impressive.

One of the players, I particularly liked. He was very laid back, competitive, yet encouraging to other players--a guy who was confident enough to play well himself and encourage the best out of others, both those on his team and the opponents as well, a real team-player. The other? Let's just say . . . that it didn't take a Psychologist to tell that his game was a little bit more about stroking his ego than just having fun competing--not that ego doesn't play a role for most of us at some level, some people just hide it more reliably. :)  Anyway . . . let's talk about .

The Day The Ego Demanded "it's Due!"

We were playing one day, as usual, when a new player joined us. His assignment was to guard Rex. Now, a new player, especially a younger one, would have no reason to believe that this would be a difficult task. After all, this is your grandfather--someone your should be able to outmaneuver, out jump, and out hustle. But Rex was an athlete, with a capital A. He could make shots all over the floor and from "way downtown"--far distant from the basket.

His favorite shot was a hook-type delivery off a drive to his right. Those of us who had played with Rex for a long time knew that the best strategy was to overplay his right side, and force him to go left where, although still capable, he was far less dangerous and effective. It was common knowledge and everyone who defended him more than once knew this.

The new player who joined us that day, however, didn't know this. As he tried to guard Rex, this septuagenarian shark, repeatedly drove right and drained the basket . . . time after time . . . scoring easily and, I think, frustrating the younger man's increasingly strenuous attempts to stop his scoring. Finally, the younger man, once again, beaten to the delivery of the shot, exclaimed, "Rex, you are unstoppable!" Rex beamed. But, unfortunately for Rex, the moment didn't last. 

Another player, let's call him Doug, who was known for his less-than-sensitive-candor, impulsively reacted. "It's not hard to stop Rex," he commented dourly.  "That's easy. He can't go to his left."  A statement, that over-simplified guarding this athlete, but never-the-less did communicate the best approach to stopping Rex's game. An awkward silence hung in the air, as players absorbed this Doug's "attack" on Rex's abilities and demonstrated Doug's own need to stroke his ego "against" a player, in Rex, that definitely had superior skills. Some glancing at Rex, uncomfortably, and wondering how Rex would respond.

Well, Rex wasn't one to let such blatant disrespect to pass. He said nothing, at first. I was surprised, but remained watchful.  The next time Rex's team had the ball, Rex, playing point guard, took the ball, drove to his left, executed his signature hook shot, banking it into the basket off the backboard, the pointedly directed a comment to Doug, "So, I can't go left huh?"

Flashes of Junior High School

"What is this, Junior High School?" The thought flashed through my mind.

So, Rex proved he could go left. Doug was "put into his place," and Rex's ego could remain intact--although why it was threatened so much by the comment remains unknown. Or so it seemed for a moment. Doug, unfortunately, didn't have the wisdom to let it go either, and the rest of "noon ball" was marred by a general pensive, irritation punctuated with some general aggressive playing and "bad will."

The funny thing is, for all the posturing egos on display, that day . . . nothing had really changed. We all still knew that the best strategy, when guarding Rex, was to force Rex to go left. No one thought less of him as a player, since all players have strengths and weaknesses to their game. And we were all sure that Doug would continue to comment on things that others would think but definitely not say. While Doug would rush in to fill the void. We also knew that Doug, no matter how long he played--would he even be playing in another 30 years?--would never be as good as Rex.

What did change was that it was clear that Rex's ego was tied up in his ability as an athlete (and so was Doug's, but that's another story) and that Rex would get defensive, react with somewhat controlled anger, if challenged . . . and this trait, could be turned against him, by unscrupulous opponents. That Doug, or others, could easily "get under his skin" with just a comment despite the fact that he was a great player. I can imagine some competitors I have played against in competitive venues, making comments,  "What's the matter, can't you go left?" and goading him into "proving them wrong" ---thereby taking him out of his best game and using his emotion against him—and disadvantaging his team.

Ego vs. Team

When Doug made his comment, and Rex visibly reacted, my intuition and experience told me that Rex would have to prove himself by forcing the next shot . . . going left. He did, and it worked, he made the basket. But what if that had not been in a "pick up game" but in a game that counted for something. Was that the right time and place to take the shot?  Maybe. Would a defender, as I did, anticipate his need to go left and position himself to block or alter the shot.  Possibly. But ego doesn't consider what is best for the team only what is demanded to keep the ego intact. 

Rex, it appears, didn't trust the team. He didn't believe that that everyone already saw him as a superior player--even if they recognized that he preferred shooting going to his right. He probably was fearful that others would "believe" John's view or that perhaps it would make it harder if the young man guarding him forced him to operate going left. Some subconscious fear drove his need to respond. Ultimately, however it was driven by his own fears about himself and his ability.

Another ego and it's effect . . . a starter on one of my high school teams "lost it" when his shoe came untied and the coach didn't call a time out to let him fix the problem. He responded by kicking his shoe off, sending it flying over the bench, and starting to hack (foul) other players. He fouled out of the game in the first quarter. I have never seen such a ego-driven temper tantrum quite like it before or since. Playing the rest of the game without our number one point guard and a great shooter certainly did not help the team and we lost the game.  Those whose ego strength, to continue the use the Freudian term, isn't sufficiently strong will not be able to laugh at themselves, apologize, admit mistakes, or put the team first.  They may be very talent and accomplished but, in some fashion or another, they will always be a one man show.

Leaders, Employees and Ego

When consulting with organizations you inevitably will run into people whose ego is a barrier to them being the best leader they can be. Whether as an employee or a boss, their fragile self-worth will manifest itself in defensiveness, rejection of valid criticism, and a stubborn refusal to examine mistakes and learn from them.  Often, these are very bright and accomplished people who has skillfully found ways to mitigate some of the negative effects--perhaps they are superficially charming, or hard working, or they maintain and aloof distance--but, like Rex, everyone knows of the ego-weakness and how it effects their work and the organization as a whole.

Attempts to point out the weakness results, again like Rex in the story, in them proving (at least to themselves) that the have a strong ego and the problem is not them but is the problem of the person pointing out the impact of their behavior.  

You can spot this trait often when a person "flip-flops" on responsibility when they can no long dismiss it. So, if problems are pointed out by another colleague or employee this person may simply dismiss it, or aggressively refute it. But if the problems amplify to the point the behavior is threatening the organization and they are forced to face their behaviors . . . the "Ego-challenged" person will admit a problem, superficially take responsibility for it, perhaps even apologize (if necessary) and verbally agree to a need to change.

But watched closely, and over time, they will reverse course . . . reverting back to their baseline, ego-protecting view, that "the problem isn't me."  When this happens, you can be sure that you are dealing with someone who, to reach their full potential, has a need for significant work on the ability to take constructive criticism, be self-critical, and learn to grow.  In Patrick Lencioni's words They suffer a lack of humility . . . thinking, albeit somewhat subconsciously, more about themselves that the good of the organization. In those moments it is, once again, all about them.

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Unintended Contracting

Becoming a Contractor . . . quite by accident!

Since 1994, I have had all or some of my professional work paid for through contracts. This was NOT the plan!  I have mentioned before in this blog that I am not, by nature, an entreprenuer. To wit . . .

  • I hate the idea of sales and marketing.

  • I am not a "joiner." Involvement is not something I seek.

  • I am inherently risk-aversive.

Thus, my first contracts came by "default." That is, through no intention or effort on my part to try and sell my services. Here's how it happened . . .

1993: A colleague offered to guarantee 3 months pay to encourage me to join their private practice. The hospital, whose employ I was leaving, offered to contract with me, part time, for weekend therapy groups.

1994: Citibank, who had bought the hospital chain, closed the hospital. An education consultant, who had a contract with the Department of Education, offered me a contract to do counseling with identified kids in schools. (Realizing this part-time gig paid me better than the full-time job was an eye-opener. But, I had dreams and it was off to grad school.)

1997: A colleague of mine and I dreamed up a consulting gig as part of an assignment for a Qualitative Research class. We proposed, with support from our professors, to help improve employee satisfaction at this 3,000+ plant.

2000: A university offers me a job, but it's not where I want to live. I counter-offer to teach from my preferred location. This leads to a contract to combine trips to campus and distance-learning that continues for 15 years until I decide to retire to pursue other interests.

2003: Interest peaks among students about the consulting work I am doing and I am assigned to teach a Doctoral class on Consulting with Larger Systems.

2010: Students continue to value the class and encourage the writing of Beyond the Couch. As multiple students indicate that the class has been the "most practical" and "best class" in their curriculum, I begin to dream about how to help others benefit from contracting.

2011: I begin coaching mentees about developing contracts. These colleagues develop contracts with schools, churches, medical practices, and non-profits. Personally, I continue with my work with a limited private practice and consulting.

So, that's it.  Let me encourage you to seek colleagues, opportunities, and supports to add contracting and consulting to your "toolkit." It will open up many doors to creative and energizing work!

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From "Doc" to "Mabe the Babe." 51 years in leadership . . . consistency . . . and change!

Okay, here's my "sausage fingers" and fist. Imagine two extra knuckles and you'll have the size of my Dad's hands.

Okay, here's my "sausage fingers" and fist. Imagine two extra knuckles and you'll have the size of my Dad's hands.

Trigger warning!  The last time I wrote about my Dad's leadership it "messed up" one of the kids for the morning.  Well, MJM, you've been duly warned!

I've shared in this blog before how my Dad demonstrated the greatest act of leadership I have ever witnessed. He was a "leader personality" (his Meyers Briggs Type was ESTJ) and I've had many people--mostly from the hard sciences side of academia--tell me how consistent and fair he was as an administrator. His consistency left a strong family legacy. Working in one place for 51 years leaves a lot of "data" to evaluate one's leadership.

As I remember  it, it was Bruce, and employee at the college, who told me that my Dad had gotten recruited to run the graduate program at Auburn University--and turning it down. "Dad, is that true?" I asked. "Well, yes," he told me. He had taught some summer courses there evidently and attracted, perhaps, by his pedigree at Peabody (Vanderbilt) and the Ph.D., had asked him to stay on. "But I wanted to work in Christian education," he concluded. "Thanks, Dad!" I said sarcastically, "If you'd have taken that job, I could have had a nice car!" I rejoined. I don't think it bothered him one bit--"buying a nice car for his son" was not high on his list of values and I think he was quite happy with me working to buy my own, which I did, spending the tidy sum of $250..

I think it was Bruce, in the same conversation, who told me that this was also why everyone called my Dad "Doc." "At that time, he was the only one on campus with a Ph.D." he told me. As a kid, I remember the respect--and sometimes maybe a little fear--people in the community had for "Doc." He was an imposing figure at 6'3" in height, "north of 200 lbs." --and those hands! Being a farm boy in the 30s, my Dad regularly cut wood by hand, used mules to haul the logs out of the woods, and make some money. He told me it took 9 cords of wood to buy his class ring. Ugh.

Incidentally, the "Doc" label was picked up by our local dentist whose pity comment I was to hear repeatedly from my Dad once I completed my Ph.D. My Dad, would introduce himself, the thumb saying betwixt us, say, "Between him and me, we're a paradox." But we shared more that our academic accolades.  People comment on my "big square and thick hands"--my family calls me "sausage fingers"--and my hands are large, but . . . my Dad's fist, when matched to mine, extended beyond my hand by two knuckles! Truly massive.

Yes, Doc, with his position, his quick ability to reason, and his physical presence--his ram-rod straight posture was acquired during his college years when we would "rotate back" his shoulders as he walked across campus--all these attributes, demanded respect. In this, Doc was a model of steadfastness and consistency. After he died, we found a list of his goals for the college that he wrote when he first started. At his memorial, the President of the college read the list and commented on how his consistent vision, carried out over 51 years, had "made" the college.

But as family, I experienced far more than those who simply worked for my Dad. All of what made him "Doc" was equally true at home. He was consistent, value-driven, quick in his ability to assess and make decisions.  But that consistency did not mean there was no change in his leadership.

In fact, as part of the "second family." my Mom and Dad had two girls then waited more than a decade to have three boys, my experience was quite different than my older sister's experience. Already, even as I passed through my teenage years into independence, I was witnessing the transition from "Doc" to "Mabe the Babe."

It was a student, who caught me off guard with it, "So, you're the son of 'Mabe the Babe?;" he asked. College students can be so wonderfully, and maddeningly, unaware of their cheeky informality with faculty relations can't they?  "Mabe the Babe?" I reacted, "When did that happen?" I wondered. My son, a student at the school at the time, confirmed it, "Yep, that's what they call him"  What? no more "Doc?" As I became used to the new moniker it became all too clear--students looked upon my Dad as more of a kindly old grandfather figure than the authoritarian, VP of Academics, respected-yet-a-little-scary "Doc" of former years.

Students from the early years of his career tell me stories about how my Doc's toughness (unplugging the electric guitar at 2 am after a complaint to the police) and authenticity (he told me privately that "I was right" even though I knew it was not the college's position) had influenced them.  The younger students talked glowingly about what he and Mom had done for them--about his kindness and gentle spirit. You see, in his latter, post-administration, years the students knew nothing of Doc. They only knew my father as the aging professor and they gave him this new nickname, derived from his unusual first name, Mabrey . . . and from experiencing the kinder-gentler but still respected senior citizen he had become.

It was in a faculty meeting that my Dad once again showed his mettle. The school was facing some financial challenges. Cash flow was an issue. The President was asking for ideas from the faculty and staff on how to make cuts that could help. My Dad rose to the challenge, "Well," he said, "I've been here the longest, I should be the first to go." and with that, at age 85, a long 51-year vision ended with a final act of leadership. In that moment, "Doc" and" Mabe the Babe" were one and the same--actually, they always were.

 

P.S.--I'm seriously thinking about the lessons to be learned from the transition from "Doc" to "the Babe."  I pitched writing a book about the leadership lessons that could be learned--from both good and bad experiences--to my younger brother.  I can imagine gathering stories about "Doc" from my sisters, maybe from former students, faculty and staff, adding pictures, and chronicling the transition over the years.  Will it get written? I have no idea. But I do wish more people could have experienced the strength of Doc and the authentic kind-heartedness of Mabe. He, along with my mother, a picture of a "guileless encourager" formed a great laboratory to see what worked and didn't work in serving a small organization for decades.

My brother, a 21-year veteran of the Air Force has written a leadership manual that encompasses a lot of the people centered style that my Dad tried to follow. It's called Lessons Learned Around the World, and details how Keith learned to implement leadership skills with crews operating the airborne radar and coordinating with the ground forces and/or civilian authorities. If you are interested in developing a people-centered leadership style, I highly recommend the manual.

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Pragmatic Effectiveness and the use of Time and Money

Pragmatic Effectiveness and the use of Time and Money

Recently, a former student sent me a message on LinkedIn expressing "happy anniversary" wishes. In his note, The student, Greg, commenting on his experience in the classroom, noted how "pragmatic and effective your style can be"--I thanked him for the kind words.  The truth, however, is . . . that often . . . I am--wait for it--not so pragmatic and effective. For instance, I have a tendency toward the "cheap" when it comes to spending time and money--I blame it on the midwest "bailing wire" mentality where you value just "making do" with what you have. "Going to town," in this paradigm, to get a needed fix is almost an admission of failure . . . it takes you away from the work (time) and it requires the expenditure of money both viewed as slightly bad unless absolutely necessary.

This mindset is not all bad of course . . . but . . . when it comes to running a business . . . it can be a roadblock to evaluating the opportunity costs of your decisions.

Sometimes, a "cheap" mindset sacrifices efficiency in the business world and progress toward a pragmatic decision that would help "Git-R-Done." I know. I've often been slow to adapt--especially if the "cost" is in terms of time or money. But, I am learning.

Take my recent home project, for example--I am building props for our local home school melodrama that my wife have directed for the past 15 years. I needed to build an old-style newspaper rack for this year's version, a rack that will hide the revolver the hero retrieves to "save the day." The picture of the rack I wanted to re-create (from the internet) had tapered legs. No problem. I cut tapers regularly with my table saw. But, these leg tapers were tapers on a small piece (9 inches) of stock. (Truth be told, I've done this without the jig as well but it's a little, well you'll see . . .) This is definitely trickier and certainly more dangerous to do "free-hand." ("Real men" may now shudder over the fact I have done this in this cavalier way in the past.)

I decided that it was the "pragmatic and most effective" route to bite-the-bullet and spend the time and money to do it properly. Not only that, by creating a jig for this project, I would no longer be tempted to do it in the more dangerous "bailing wire" way. (After all, I really enjoy playing my guitar with all my fingers!)

Applying this to my business, here are a few things where I have had to weigh Pragmatic Effectiveness over Time and Money:

  • Hiring professionals. Accountant, graphic designer, videographer, social marketing consultant, editor.
  • Joining professional associations.
  • Going to national conferences.
  • Additional training and credentials.
  • Hardware, software, and internet services.
  • Yes, and even buying expensive books . . . it's that bad at times!

The bottom line is . . . the old adage, "You have to spend money to make money." certainly comes true. The same can be said of time. So in leading your business, do you see time and money as more important than growing and succeeding?

P.S.-- As a leader you do need to weigh the opportunity costs of decisions of course. I am not suggesting that you spend time or money "willy-nilly." Just don't over-value saving time or money where doing so will handicap your growth. Incidentally, I must be getting better at this! I hardly shuddered at all when--registering myself and an employee for the national conference--I pushed the "payment" button.

 

Here are pictures of the jig with a board where you would lock it in position, a close up of the legs I ripped, and the magazine rack itself (stage prop) . . . not yet painted. The jig worked quite flawlessly!

 

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