Wednesday, April 21, 2010

60,000 Things to Do With a Q-Tip

A couple of months ago, Kathryn came running into my office, where I was browsing through a stack of books on negotiation looking for inspiration about how to teach a class based on interaction to a group of Northeastern undergrads online. She had a big, excited smile on her face. “Guess what I just bought?” she said. “A new microwave?” I asked hopefully. We are eagerly anticipating the death of our current one. “No,” she responded with an even bigger smile. “Ten cases of Q-Tips. And they only cost $2.50 per case!” Ten cases of Q-Tips. Wow. I struggled to control my excitement. “That’s really cool. Um... how many Q-Tips are in each case?” “Six thousand.” Wow again. That meant we were getting 60,000 Q-Tips. Wow. Don’t get me wrong. I like Q-Tips as much as the next person. They’re fun, they’re soft, and they are particularly useful to clean soap scum out of the shower tiles. When we were in London, I spent a few hours one day trying to find Q-Tips. In case you haven’t tried to find Q-Tips in London, there, they are called cotton buds. But 60,000? I did some quick math. There are three people in my family, plus often a random guest or two. If we each use 10 Q-tips per week, how long would it take us to use 10 cases? A really, really long time.

But this is not really about Q Tips, or cotton buds, or swabs, or whatever you want to call them. But I guess it kind of is….

A few years ago, I attended a workshop on change management. At the time, I was working for an organization that was entering a time of major change, and everyone was feeling more than a little stressed. When we got back from lunch and walked back into the classroom, we immediately noticed that there was a box of Q-Tips at each place around the conference table. They were real Q-Tips, too, no generics or store brands for us. We all had rather quizzical looks on our faces as we looked at each other. Why were they giving us Q-Tips? Did the spouse of one of the trainers work for a Q-Tip company? Were we going to do a really cool craft project with glitter and glue? Did someone in the course have an ear-related hygiene issue?

As we soon discovered, the Q-Tips symbolized one of the most basic concepts of effective change management. Q-Tip stands for “Quit Taking it Personally.” An important lesson for all of us. Like many people, I have a tendency to personalize things, even things that have nothing to do with me. I sometimes make things about me, even when they are not. Sometimes, if someone makes a decision that is not what I have recommended, if someone chooses a course of action that is not what I would have done or that changes something I have done, I take it personally. I get my feelings hurt, or I get defensive, or I get mad and, at least in my imagination, stamp out of the room and slam the door behind me. All in all, it is not a particularly effective or productive or happy way to lead my life.

But things changed for me on that day when I was given a box of Q-Tips. I began to take a few minutes to really think about things before assuming that things are about me. I remove my ego from situations in which my ego just doesn’t belong. I regularly remind myself about some words a good friend of mine once said to me when I was ranting about someone who had not taken my advice. This is what she said, “What they did had more to do with them and their stuff than with you and yours.” In other words, quit taking it personally.

And so I did. Or at least I try to. And now, because I don’t spend so much time stewing about things that have nothing to do with me, I have a lot of extra time. This is lucky, because even though our Q-Tip order didn’t go through, I don’t know when I may encounter another Q-Tip bonanza. And I want to be prepared. So now I spend my extra time thinking about innovative things to do with 60,000 Q-Tips. Do you have any ideas?


  1. You can hand them out to people as a memory device for those Q-TIP moments :) <3

  2. clean everyone's ears, noeses and belly buttons.