Juggling Roles

Over the past few weeks, one idea has surfaced again and again through podcasts, books, and articles I’ve read:

Multi-tasking (or having multiple priorities) is the key to failure. To succeed, you must identify one thing that takes precedence and accept mediocrity at everything else, so the prevailing wisdom goes.

This message has come up several times over the past few weeks from reading The ONE Thing by Gary Keller to a discussion with Angel List founder Naval Ravikant on the Spartan Up! podcast to an interview I listened to with Greg McKeown, author of Essentialism. I think it’s worth separating out what I see as two different types of multi-tasking:
  1. Trying to do two different tasks at the same moment in time (like trying to watch TV and also listen to your friend tell a story).
  2. The multi-tasking we all do on a daily basis as we juggle the various roles we all play (team member, writer, husband, mother, father, etc).
It’s well documented that the former variation doesn’t work. You’ll get a much better return on investment by single-tasking – devoting all of your energy to one task at a time. Read Deep Work if you’re not convinced. The second variation – juggling the many roles we all play on a daily basis – is where I tend to disagree with the prevailing wisdom. Continue reading “Juggling Roles”

Building Your Own Inner Scorecard

I recently read Ego is the Enemy by Ryan Holiday. Since finishing the book, I continue to come back to one specific topic—living your life by an inner scorecard not an external one.

A person who judges himself based on his own standards doesn’t crave the spotlight the same way as someone who lets applause dictate success.

I began thinking about all of the external scorecards we try to live up to on a daily basis. Most of them are meaningless. The car you drive, the money you have in your bank account, the clothes you wear—they’re all vanity metrics.

Here’s the thing: We all know this. There are countless quotes and books that reiterate this over and over. So, why do we continue to focus on these vanity metrics?

We continue to act on these metrics because we haven’t taken the time to develop our own. We haven’t built out our own internal scorecard so we fallback on those designed by others.

Take a few minutes today and write down what’s really important to you. What really leaves you feeling fulfilled? If you had all the time in the world, what would you spend it on? What characteristics do you want to embody?

Set out the standards, actions, habits, and routines that really matter and then give yourself a grade. Then, pick one to focus on and bring it up to an A+. Ignore everything else.

Need some inspiration? Here are the standards/actions I try to hold myself to.

Standard: Putting my family first and spending time with them.
Grade: B
Next steps: I feel like I’ve made progress in this arena with habits like shutting down at 5pm. I still let work crowd into times that I should be spending with family. I’m continuing to work at this through things like planning an awesome vacation for us next year and more regular dinner dates.

Standard: Continuously learning something new.
Grade: C+
Next steps: A year ago, I would’ve given myself an A+ here. While I’ve continued to read, I’ve fallen off the habit of taking online courses, tinkering on small side projects, etc that led me to learning JavaScript. I’m planning on picking this back up in the winter and learning PHP.

Standard: Using my skills as a force multiplier to help others succeed.
Grade: B-
Next steps: This relates to my day-to-day work at Automattic. My goal as team lead is to help the members of my team be successful. I’ll write more about this in the future, but I’m still learning a ton and falling down as many times as I succeed here.

Standard: Spending part of my time and energy for social good.
Grade: A
Next steps: I feel really great about the work I’m doing with Drink for Pink this year. I think we’re on the right track to push breast cancer research forward and help develop a better way of thinking about nonprofits in general.

This isn’t all-encompassing. It’s just an effort in figuring out what’s important, determining your own standards so you don’t fallback on those set by others.

Also, writing these down once isn’t good enough. Revisit them every month and find out if you’re making progress.

Define Success on Your Own Terms

That if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.

Henry David Thoreau

You probably remember Henry David Thoreau for his amazing literary works.

Chances are you haven’t heard of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.1

In 1839, Thoreau and his brother John made a boat and hiking trip from Concord, Massachusetts to the White Mountains of New Hampshire. When John ended up passing away a short time later in 1842, Thoreau set out to recreate the trip in novel form.

The only problem? No one wanted to buy it.

Continue reading “Define Success on Your Own Terms”

How to Force Yourself to Improve

This article was republished on Thought Catalog.

Gary Cohn owes his first job on Wall Street to a cab ride1.

Cohn was twenty-two and working as a salesman for U.S. Steel in Cleveland. On one particular day, he found himself in Long Island and decided to venture down to Wall Street. While he was there, he decided he wanted a job.

The only problem? Cohn didn’t know anything about finance.

Since he had no connections on Wall Street and little experience that would qualify him for a job, he couldn’t pursue the ordinary route of handing in a resume. So, he went after a different angle. He stood outside of the commodities exchange until he overheard a well-dressed man catching a taxi to LaGuardia. Without missing a beat, Cohn asked if they could share a cab ride.

This gave Cohn an hour in the car with a higher up in one of the top brokerage firms on Wall Street.

Throughout their conversation, Cohn discovered the firm was entering the options business. However, the higher up didn’t know the first thing about buying or selling an option. He asked Cohn how much he knew.

Malcolm Gladwell recounts Cohn’s response in David and Goliath:

When he said, ‘Do you know what an option is?’ I said, ‘Of course I do, I know everything, I can do anything for you.’

That, of course, was a lie. Cohn knew nothing about options trading. But, he was able to score an interview. He spent the next few days reading books on options trading and landed the job.

Cohn knew the best way to improve is to commit to action before you’re ready.

Continue reading “How to Force Yourself to Improve”

The Power of Posture & How to Improve It

This post originally appeared on the Crew blog.

When you read the title of this post, you likely sat up a bit taller or pulled your shoulders back just a bit.

As much as we tend to ignore posture during our normal day, the idea of perfect posture is ingrained in our heads since childhood. It turns out our parents may have been doing more than just instilling proper manners.

Posture has a great deal to do with how others perceive you in business situations. It can help convey confidence or portray weakness. Your posture can help you boost your income, ace that presentation, and, yes, even score your dream date. Let’s look at how you can use it to your advantage.

Continue reading “The Power of Posture & How to Improve It”

Suli Breaks on Work

Suli Breaks is one of the most interesting individuals I’ve seen/heard of over the past year. For those that don’t know, Suli is a lyricist that tells powerful stories through his rhymes. The video above is one of my favorites from him.

I’ve written a few times in the past on doing something that makes you incredibly happy and leaves you feeling fulfilled at the end of the day. The “pursue your passion” mantra has popped up over and over again across various blogs and in the mainstream media, so I don’t feel the need to beat that idea to death. But, I did want to share two things I’ve noticed since I started working in a field I love:

  • Energy is abundant. Low energy is often a result of boredom and lack of stimulation. When I was training full-time, I would need to kick back a double shot of espresso every afternoon just to make it through my list of clients for the evening. While I’m certainly not caffeine-free while I work at Automattic (quite the opposite), I don’t experience the same dips in energy, focus, and enthusiasm I have with previous jobs. The work keeps me engaged because I truly care about what we’re doing for our users.
  • Personal goals become less important as team goals rise to the top. The number one thing I cared about at my previous two jobs (they were commission-based) was how big my paycheck was going to be. Now, I pay more attention to team-wide goals, and I’m more excited about upcoming developments with WordPress.com and our other products than I am with my personal success.

Further reading/watching:
From Cleaning Toilets to 3.2 Million Views – Jon Goodman
I Will Not Let An Exam Result Decide My Fate – another great video from Suli Breaks

Hiding Behind What You Know

Every time you join a new team, there’s an internal struggle to add value, to find some way to prove your worth. I’ve found this to be the case at every job I’ve worked at so far across multiple different industries.

When I started as a personal trainer at Life Time Fitness, sales figures were sent out on a bi-weekly basis. Starting off, it was tough to see your name at the bottom of the list. There was an immediate drive to prove yourself and get to the top. Being at the bottom typically meant you weren’t performing well at your job. Perhaps you weren’t a great trainer or maybe you just were terrible at sales. Either way, being at the bottom of the list wasn’t the ideal scenario. After starting at Federated Media (now Sovrn), I experienced the same kind of feeling. Entering an industry I had literally no experience in previously, I had an immediate desire to find some part of the business to excel in. Once again, I experienced a similar feeling when I joined Automattic a few short months ago. While the team has been beyond welcoming and the hiring process consisted of a trial phase that prepped me for full-time work as much as possible, I still had the feeling that I needed to prove myself in some way, to prove that I was worth hiring.

In each of the above cases, I found myself reverting back to something familiar. For example, while I didn’t know the product or the industry at all at Federated, I resorted to sending as many emails as possible to potential clients, effectively opening the sales funnel but also sticking with something I already knew (sending email). At Automattic, my first few months were filled with an intense focus on answering tickets, a main element of the trial period. In both scenarios, my desire to prove my worth led me to focus on something that I was already familiar with.

In reality, I think this is perhaps the worst route to go when trying to demonstrate your value. Hiding behind your strengths only further emphasizes your weaknesses. It also has several other negative effects:

It steers you towards being one-dimensional. Unintentionally, you revert back to a key skill set that you already have developed. While you may improve that skill set, it likely doesn’t add that much value to the team. What adds value? Encouraging versatility. Taking on new tasks. Learning new things. Making yourself useful in many arenas. While initially, your contribution to the team may appear to suffer number-wise while learning new areas, in the end, you’ll be a much more valuable asset because of the many skills you’ve developed.

Hiding behind your proficiency in one subject area shortchanges your growth. Joel Gascoigne wrote a great post on the Buffer blog the other day on the topic of working harder on yourself than you do on your job. While the post applies more generally to startups, I think it obviously benefits any employee to continue to develop themselves and learn new skills, regardless of their current position. Business-wise, companies should encourage growth among employees as it only makes them a more valuable asset to the team.

Hiding behind what you know leads to you feeling comfortable. Initially, this is what you’re looking for. It feels great. You know that you can do X, Y, and Z and feel like you’ve contributed. But, over time, feeling comfortable can turn into something completely different – boredom. Constantly challenging yourself to learn new areas and push boundaries keeps that initial excitement alive inside.

Fight the urge to “stick with what you know”. Although it may be a safe haven at first, it shortchanges everyone in the long run. Challenge yourself to constantly stay outside of your comfort zone and look for new ways to add value. Despite your position, you can add value in many different ways; you just need to look beyond the surface.

Your Glass Ceiling

Francis Galton was a man who truly believed in natural talents and an upper ceiling for success and achievement. Take the following quotes, which were borrowed from Talent is Overrated by Geoffrey Colvin.

His maximum performance becomes a rigidly determinate quality.

He is no longer tormented into hopeless efforts by the fallacious promptings of overweening vanity…” He discards the foolish notion that he can ever do better, makes peace with the idea that he’s as good as he’ll ever be, and “finds true moral repose in an honest conviction that he is engaged in as much good work as his nature has rendered him capable of performing.”

Galton believed that each of us was born with a specific set of abilities and a predisposition to perform well at a certain type of work. After engaging in that level of work for awhile, Galton believed we would all hit a true ceiling, a level at which we could no longer improve.

I’ve certainly felt this way. Haven’t you? I would pick up a new hobby (playing guitar comes to mind), try to mimic professionals, and then give up when I fell terribly short after only a few days of practice. After sulking in frustration, I’d blame “natural talent”; it was the perfect scapegoat.

The “natural ability” blame game reminds me of Carol Dweck, who describes two different mindsets – a fixed mindset and a growth mindset.

Dweck distinguishes between people with a fixed mindset — they tend to agree with statements such as “You have a certain amount of intelligence and cannot do much to change it” — and those with a growth mindset, who believe that we can get better at almost anything, provided we invest the necessary time and energy. While people with a fixed mindset see mistakes as a dismal failure — a sign that we aren’t talented enough for the task in question — those with a growth mindset see mistakes as an essential precursor of knowledge, the engine of education.

Galton more closely related to the fixed mindset model rather than the growth mindset. In today’s society, I think quite a few people inadvertently are hopping on the fixed mindset as well. They hear stories of famous entrepreneurs and chalk the results up to circumstances outside of their control. Musicians and professional athletes must have had something that separates them from the rest of us. While being born to parents on the wrong way of six foot puts you at a disadvantage on the courts, it’s probably not the only reason you’re watching games from the stadium seats instead of playing it first-hand.

The fixed mindset offers the easy way out, an explanation for failure at new pursuits. On the other hand, a growth mindset, one that chooses to disregard limits, promises years of frustration. After picking up a new hobby or interest, you’ll likely spend months just trying to get good enough to enjoy it. You’ll have days where you truly just want to give up. Your initial output truly will suck. You’ll probably feel embarrassed and want to draw back into your safety cocoon and just work on things you’re good at.

But, that’s part of the growth process.

You have to see how terrible you are in the beginning in order to appreciate how far you go in the end. To quote Ira Glass:

Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take a while. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.

During the growth period, you learn an incredible amount about yourself. What makes you tick? How do you learn best? How hard can you push yourself? Those are the fun questions to answer. If you skipped straight to the fun part (being proficient or better yet, good), you wouldn’t truly appreciate your success.

So, take some time to work at one skill you’re truly passionate about. Aim to master your own craft. Ignore shortcuts and suffer through the days when you just want to quit. When you think you’ve reached your potential, look for other ways to improve. Change up your practice style or look to shadow someone with a slightly different perspective. No matter what domain you work in, there’s always room for improvement. There may be a ceiling on ability level, but it’s a false cap that lures most of us into laziness offering the perfect “out” from hard work.

Talent is Overrated

talent-overrated
Author: Geoffrey Colvin
Title: Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else
Published: Oct 4, 2008

In Talent is Overrated, Colvin explores and dismisses some of the most popular myths surrounding mastery. From expert musicians to sports heroes, he breaks down performances that many of us chalk up to innate ability and provides rational and reasoning as to why talent is based largely on hard work rather than some sort of born skill set.

Perhaps the most fundamental element of the book is a concept known as deliberate practice (something Gladwell alludes to in Outliers). Deliberate practice is characterized by several key elements including:

  1. It’s designed specifically to improve performance
  2. It can be repeated a lot
  3. Feedback on results is continuously available
  4. It’s highly demanding mentally
  5. It isn’t much fun

Obviously, these elements come in stark contrast to the casual game of golf on the weekend or the neighborhood hoops game. Neither will produce extraordinary results. Colvin breaks down many popular performers (including Tiger Woods for example) and demonstrates the impact that deliberate practice had on their success.

Continue reading “Talent is Overrated”

Do What You Love

Recently, Slate published an article on the topic of “Do What You Love”, specifically how the phrase “Devalues work and hurts others”. As someone that truly does love what they do, I wanted to share some thoughts on the article as a whole as well as some specific points regarding choosing a career path you love even if it’s well outside of your current wheelhouse.

The phrase “Do What You Love” has become increasingly popular over the past few years as workers long for a career path that motivates them to get out of the bed in the morning rather than living for the weekends and the meager amount of vacation time they have saved up. The mantra also stems from a generation privileged with a much different outlook on employment and work in general. Startups are running rampant particularly within the technology sector making the dream of running your own business much more realistic. Remote working is getting ever more popular as businesses look to employ talent from anywhere rather than just from a physical location. A college degree and the right connections are no longer enough to solidify a job climbing the corporate ladder. Needless to say, the term work has changed quite a bit over the past few years.

Continue reading “Do What You Love”