Monthly Archives: May 2013

Invest in Yourself at the Low End and High End

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Suppose you categorize your existing skills and knowledge into three buckets: low, medium, and high. There are things you have no expertise in or knowledge of (low), there are things you know a little bit (medium), and there are things you are already quite good at or knowledgeable of (high).

If you want to invest in yourself, where should you focus your time? At the low end, medium end, or high end of your existing abilities and knowledge?

Let’s consider the impact of improving yourself in each scenario.

Going from Illiterate to Literate: You do not know how to surf, but then you become an elementary surfer after 20 hours of effort. You know nothing about Islam, but then you become literate with the basic names and facts. You’re totally lost when you hear the word “Twitter,” but then you have a basic understanding of Twitter’s role in the social media ecosystem.

When your understanding of X goes from nothing to something — when your understanding crosses a minimal threshold — that knowledge or skill area becomes associative. Humans are creative by being able to see the associations between what we know and between the memories we hold. When you know a topic just well enough, you can come up with metaphors related to the idea. (And metaphors are the best transportation for ideas). For example, I’m not at all an expert in Italian politics, but I know enough about the country’s past and present political situation to know that volatility is the norm, and so I can credibly refer to Italy when discussing another topic I know a little, which is volatility and risk more generally.

It can be transformative to go from knowing nothing and to knowing a little. Sure, it’s hard to get started. As Josh Kaufman notes in his forthcoming book The First 20 Hours, you feel foolish or lost in the early hours of any new pursuit. But it’s critical to undertake. For me in this category, I’m considering investing in my knowledge of corporate finance, basic European history, and certain kinds of dancing, to offer just three examples.

Going from Literate to Good: It’s safer and easier to get slightly better at something you’re already good at. For example, I’m a decent chess player. I could spend a bunch of time and become slightly better, but it would take a long time to get to great. I’m already good enough that I can connect my knowledge of chess to other parts of my life; I use chess as a metaphor for other things. So short term improvement isn’t as exciting.

Going from Good to Great: Getting better at things you’re already good at is a popular business idea thanks to thinkers like Marcus Buckingham who preach the importance of building on “strengths.” But it’s an unintuitive idea for many people. In school, you’re told to focus on shoring up weaknesses. Parents and teachers pay special attention to the C’s and B’s on the report card, not A’s. This attitude sticks. So if you can switch to the strengths religion in adulthood, you’re ahead of many. Building on natural or existing strengths puts you on the fast track to craftsmanship. Craftsmanship that involves rare and valuable skills is the stuff of remarkable careers. For me, example existing strengths or deep knowledge areas include communication, online media, Spanish, networks. I’m excited by the prospect of going from 95% proficient to 99% proficient in a few key areas.

Bottom Line: It’s valuable to be world class or an expert in something the market desires. It’s valuable to be informed just enough in something to see the connections across disparate fields or experiences. But it’s not especially valuable to be pretty good but not great at something, or reasonably familiar but not a domain expert in a knowledge area. Thus: invest in yourself at the low end and the high end of your existing skill set and knowledge base.

You Never Truly Leave High School

Jennifer Senior wrote a great piece in New York magazine a couple months ago titled “Why You Truly Never Leave High School.” It’s about the formative and lasting nature of the American high school experience. Excerpts below.

Our brain is primed to remember what happens during adolescence:

But for most of us adults, the adolescent years occupy a privileged place in our memories, which to some degree is even quantifiable: Give a grown adult a series of random prompts and cues, and odds are he or she will recall a disproportionate number of memories from adolescence. This phenomenon even has a name—the “reminiscence bump”—and it’s been found over and over in large population samples, with most studies suggesting that memories from the ages of 15 to 25 are most vividly retained.

On the adhesiveness of our self-image from those days:

Our self-image from those years, in other words, is especially adhesive. So, too, are our preferences. “There’s no reason why, at the age of 60, I should still be listening to the Allman Brothers,” Steinberg says. “Yet no matter how old you are, the music you listen to for the rest of your life is probably what you listened to when you were an adolescent.” Only extremely recent advances in neuroscience have begun to help explain why.

It turns out that just before adolescence, the prefrontal cortex—the part of the brain that governs our ability to reason, grasp abstractions, control impulses, and self-­reflect—undergoes a huge flurry of activity, giving young adults the intellectual capacity to form an identity, to develop the notion of a self. Any cultural stimuli we are exposed to during puberty can, therefore, make more of an impression, because we’re now perceiving them discerningly and metacognitively as things to sweep into our self-concepts or reject (I am the kind of person who likes the Allman Brothers). “During times when your identity is in transition,” says Steinberg, “it’s possible you store memories better than you do in times of stability.”

An adolescent subculture is a new phenomenon; teens don’t spend much time with adults anymore:

Until the Great Depression, the majority of American adolescents didn’t even graduate from high school. Once kids hit their teen years, they did a variety of things: farmed, helped run the home, earned a regular wage. Before the banning of child labor, they worked in factories and textile mills and mines. All were different roads to adulthood; many were undesirable, if not outright Dickensian. But these disparate paths did arguably have one virtue in common: They placed adolescent children alongside adults. They were not sequestered as they matured. Now teens live in a biosphere of their own. In their recent book Escaping the Endless Adolescence, psychologists Joseph and Claudia Worrell Allen note that teenagers today spend just 16 hours per week interacting with adults and 60 with their cohort. One century ago, it was almost exactly the reverse.

Something happens when children spend so much time apart from adult company. They start to generate a culture with independent values and priorities.

Guilt can be useful, whereas shame is not:

The academic interest in shame and other emotions of self-consciousness (guilt, embarrassment) is relatively recent. It’s part of a broader effort on the part of psychologists to think systematically about resilience—which emotions serve us well in the long run, which ones hobble and shrink us. Those who’ve spent a lot of time thinking about guilt, for example, have come to the surprising conclusion that it’s pretty useful and adaptive, because it tends to center on a specific event (I cannot believe I did that) and is therefore narrowly focused enough to be constructive (I will apologize, and I will not do that again).

Shame, on the other hand, is a much more global, crippling sensation. Those who feel it aren’t energized by it but isolated. They feel unworthy of acceptance and fellowship; they labor under the impression that their awfulness is something to hide. “And this incredibly painful feeling that you’re not lovable or worthy of belonging?” asks Brown. “You’re navigating that feeling every day in high school.”

We’re all in high school, all the time:

Today, we also live in an age when our reputation is at the mercy of people we barely know, just as it was back in high school, for the simple reason that we lead much more public, interconnected lives. The prospect of sudden humiliation once again trails us, now in the form of unflattering photographs of ourselves or unwanted gossip, virally reproduced. The whole world has become a box of interacting strangers.

The New Employer-Employee Compact

Screen Shot 2013-05-22 at 7.03.26 PMI’m delighted to share our new article in this month’s Harvard Business Review titled: Tours of Duty: The New Employer-Employee Compact. Here’s the all-on-one-page web version, here’s the social-enabled web version, here it is in PDF form with the graphical layout from the print magazine.

In the time since The Start-Up of You was published, Reid and I have been asked about the book’s implications on managers at larger organizations. How should great leaders recruit, train, and retain entrepreneurial people into their company — the kind of proactive people who read Start-Up of You to mange their career?

That’s the question we sought to address in the article, first by describing the new compact that now defines the overall relationship between employer and employee, and then by enumerating the compact’s three key features. We think it’s a critical perspective for CEOs, senior managers, and HR execs everywhere when developing a 21st century talent strategy.

If you’re a manager, check out the article and let me know what you think. There’ll be much more to come on this theme.

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Sign up for a special live webcast on June 6th, 2013 for an event happening on the LinkedIn campus featuring Reid, our HBR editor Justin Fox, and a few senior HR execs, discussing the themes of the article. We’d love to have you.

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On a personal note, it was a special pleasure to team up with my longtime partner-in-crime, Chris Yeh, who co-authored the article with Reid and me. (Photo credit: Fredrik Broden)

“My Last Days”

This is a really touching 20 minute video about how Zach Sobiech, a 17 year old diagnosed with bone cancer, chose to spend his final months. Inspirational.

It reminded me of the Enjoy Every Sandwich book trailer.

Status and Power Drive Social Dynamics in Business

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An excerpt from The Start-Up of You, as featured on LinkedIn.

If you want to maintain relationships with busy, powerful people, you have to pay special attention to the role of status. Status refers to a person’s power, prestige, and rank within a given social setting at a given moment in time. There is no one pecking order in life; status is relative and dynamic. David Geffen is high status in the entertainment world, for example, but perhaps comparatively less so if Steven Spielberg is in the room. Likewise, Brad Pitt is high-status, but put him in a room full of software engineers when the project at hand involves coding, and his status is irrelevant. The President of the United States is often referred to as the most powerful man in the world, yet there are things Bill Gates can do that the president cannot, and still other things that Oprah Winfrey can do that Gates cannot. A person’s status depends on the circumstances and on who’s around.

You won’t read about status in most business and career books. It is a topic often dodged in favor of bromides like “Treat people with respect” or “Be considerate of the other person’s time.” Good advice, but not the whole story. The business world is rife with power jostling, gamesmanship, and status signaling, like it or not. It’s especially important to understand these dynamics when you work with people more powerful than you.

Before Robert Greene became a bestselling author, he worked for an agency in Hollywood that sold human-interest stories to magazines, film producers, and publishers. His job was to find the stories. A competitive person, Greene wanted to be the best, and sure enough, as he recalls, he was finding more stories that got turned into magazine articles, books, and movies than anyone else in his office.

One day, Greene’s supervisor took him aside and told him that she wasn’t very happy with him. She was not specific, but she made it clear that something just wasn’t working. Greene was befuddled. He was producing lots of stories that were being sold—wasn’t that the point? There was something else. He wondered if he was not communicating well. Perhaps it was just an interpersonal issue. So he focused more on engaging her, communicating, and being likeable. He met with his boss to go over his process and his thinking. But nothing changed—except for his ongoing success at finding really good stories to sell. Later, during a staff meeting, the tensions boiled over, and the supervisor interrupted the meeting and told Greene he had an attitude problem. No more detail, just that he wasn’t being a good listener and had a bad attitude.

A few weeks later, after being tortured by the vague criticisms despite his solid work performance, Greene quit. A job that should have been a stellar professional success had turned into a nightmare. Over the course of the next several weeks, he reflected on what had gone wrong with his boss.

He had assumed that what mattered was doing a great job and showing everyone how talented he was. While doing a great job was certainly necessary, he concluded it was not enough. What he failed to recognize was how his personal talents might make his boss look diminished in the eyes of others. He failed to navigate the status dynamics around him; failed to account for the insecurities, status anxieties, and egos of everyone else. He failed to build relationships with the people above him and below him on the totem pole. And ultimately, he paid the price with his job.

Everyone Is Equal, and Yet Everyone Is Not Equal

All men are created equal and endowed with inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, rights guaranteed regardless of gender, race, or religion. If a man commits a crime, he may lose his liberty but not his basic human rights such as food and humane living conditions (at least in enlightened societies, anyway). No one is more human than the next person. If you breathe, you deserve basic dignity. Period.

But in other ways, people are not equal. We do not live in an egalitarian society. People make different choices. Good luck falls on some more than others. Compare two men who work in finance, wear a suit and tie every day, and live in New York City. On the surface they may seem to be equal in status, but in reality one person will always be (and be perceived as) relatively more accomplished, powerful, rich, intelligent, busy, or famous than the other.

Status differences—both real and perceived—bear on how you are expected to act in different social situations. The following scenarios show how inappropriate power moves can offend someone of equal or higher status, and how to avoid making them.

Example #1: You email the vice president in charge of hiring at a company you want to work for. You send your résumé and propose to meet at a coffee shop near your house.

Analysis: A meeting should usually be made more convenient for the higher status person. That means at the time and location best for him or her. When corresponding with higher-status people, propose to meet “in or near your office.”

Example #2: You show up late to a meeting with a fellow product manager.

AnalysisTardiness is the classic power move because it says, “My time is more valuable than yours, so it’s okay for you to wait for me.” To be sure, we’ve all been late due to circumstances out of our control, so it’s not always a reliable signal. But usually it says something. Think about it: Would you allow yourself to be late to a meeting with Barack Obama? Certainly not.

Example #3: You and your coworker are both marketing assistants at your company. He mentions he’s working on a sales proposal. You proactively say, “I’d be more than happy to take a look and tell you how it could be improved.”

Analysis: Sounds harmless? Usually it is harmless. But be careful. When you make the unsolicited offer to tell someone how they can improve, you’re implying that you are able to see flaws in his work that he cannot see, and that he ought to be happy to accept your feedback. If the other person sees himself as your peer, he may not view you as someone who should be telling him how to improve, and may be resentful rather than appreciative.

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Remember, even if you aren’t trying to signal you are more powerful, an inadvertent power move is still a power move, and it can irritate decision makers you’d rather impress.

The conclusion is not to suck up to people of higher status. Slavishly affirming everything an important person says is unimpressive, to say nothing of dishonest. Nor is the answer to disrespect people of lower status or to flaunt superiority. Presenting yourself as a Big Deal repels people below you, who won’t feel inspired or loyal. It also repels people above you, who will interpret your braggadocio as insecurity. Rather, the point is that some people require a bit more finesse. If you want to build a relationship with someone of higher status, know that you are supposed to be accommodating.

The social terrain at the highest levels of power and influence can be treacherous. If you wish to cultivate and strengthen ties with your boss, boss’s boss, top officials, or other people in high places, think about how the power imbalance affects your expected social behavior. A little bit of conscientiousness in this department goes a long way.

Career Advice for New Grads

Graduating this spring or know someone who is? Check out this new Start-Up of You inspired slideshow from our team — it captures some key career insights for new grads in a very visually appealing way.


Awe, An On-Going Series

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My interest in “awe” as a primary human emotion continues, so I took note of these paragraphs pop up in Jon Haidt’s excellent book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.

In the 1830s, Ralph Waldo Emerson delivered a set of lectures on nature that formed the foundation of American Transcendentalism, a movement that rejected the analytic hyperintellectualism of America’s top universities. Emerson argued that the deepest truths must be known by intuition, not reason, and that experiences of awe in nature were among the best ways to trigger such intuitions. He described the rejuvenation and joy he gained from looking at the stars, or at a vista of rolling farmland, or from a simple walk in the woods

Emerson and Darwin each found in nature a portal between the realm of the profane and the realm of the sacred….The emotion of awe is most often trigged when we face situations with two features: vastness (something overwhelms us and makes us feel small) and a need for accommodation (that is, our experience is not easily assimilated into our existing mental structures; we must “accommodate” the experience by changing those structures). Awe acts like a kind of reset button: it makes people forget themselves and their petty concerns. Awe opens people to new possibilities, values, and directions in life. Awe is one of the emotions most closely linked to the hive switch, along with collective love and collective joy. People describe nature in spiritual terms — as both Emerson and Darwin did — precisely because nature can trigger the hive switch and shut down the self, making you feel that you are simply a part of a whole.

Where are the best star gazing opportunities in the Bay Area?

3 Day Silent Meditation Course

Over the weekend, I completed a 3 day Vipassana silent meditation course.

Here are my other posts on my meditation practice as background:

Having already written about meditation generally and Goenka courses specifically in my other posts, I’ll keep these thoughts limited to the most recent 3 day:

  • Recharge. Think of a structured meditation course as a battery charge, and the charge weakens with every passing day you’re back in the chaotic day to day world. Returning to retreat every so often recharges the battery that keeps you on a daily practice.
  • Old students, only. A 3 day Goenka retreat is only open to people who’ve done at least one 10 day course. Many people say they want to dip their toes in the water with a 3 day, but the Goenka tradition says that that’s not enough time to give a fair trial to the technique. You have to start in the deep end of the pool. Agreed.
  • Still hard. Despite the 3 day being made up of experienced students only, it was still hard for everyone. Several people told me they thought about leaving mid-way. I certainly wondered what the heck I was doing with myself after the n-th hour of lying on my bed staring up at the blank ceiling, with nothing to read or write, no one to talk to. During the sits, the physical pain, while less than the first time, remained.
  • Follow-on versus first time. A couple people have asked whether there are diminishing returns in terms of benefit with a follow-on course. As with everything, there’s nothing like the first time. That first 10 day will always stand apart. But in this follow on course, I actually got more out of every hour of meditating. I knew exactly what the setup was, I knew how I was going to physically sit (it took me 3-5 days last time to figure it out), I had the rules and regulations down. I could focus exclusively on the actual meditation instead of figuring out how to meditate. This is a mark in favor of doing a follow on course.
  • Fasting. In addition to the silence and structured meditation, it’s basically a fasting exercise as well. Get up at 4 AM, meditate, eat at 6:30 AM, rest, meditate, eat at 11 AM, rest, meditate, rest, meditate, etc. until 9 PM. Then go to bed. Net: no food after 11:30 AM. Surviving this was a confidence boost: if I ever need to go a long time with no food, I can do it.
  • Experts return to the basics. I really enjoyed spending a full day this time exclusively focused on breath (and not Vipassana body scans). I spent 15 hours trying to think only about the area below my nostril and above the upper lip, and how my respiration hits that area of my body. Breath is at the heart of any meditation practice. I walked away from the 3 day with a better command of my respiration.
  • Organized religion. The audio discourses from Goenka in the 3 day were much more proactively secular. He said over and over again that Vipassana is not organized religion. That there are no dogma, no blind faith, no belief in higher power, no rites, no rituals. Simply observe what’s happening on the experiential level. Feel what’s happening in reality, and draw conclusions from that. I love this about the practice. And I think it explains this practice’s popularity and universality. For me, I’m so allergic to anything that smells conventionally religious (for myself — I’m pro organized religion in general as a force in the world), that even Zen meditation practices are hard to stomach — the bowing, chanting, the “priests.” At Goenka’s centers, you meditate in a “hall,” you wear whatever you want (sweatpants were common at the 3 day), there is no church hierarchy whatsoever. On top of that, the fact that it’s totally donation based removes the money aspect from the equation, which is a common corrupting force in organized religion.
  • Big picture uncertainty: I’m not sure how I feel about the ultimate Vipassana goal of ridding your mind of impurities at the deepest level via the observation of impermanent physical sensations–on the grounds that, by observing the impermanence of the physical sensations, you come to realize it’s unwise to become attached to any particular positive or negative sensation, and therefore you realize it’s unwise to become attached to any particular positive or negative thought that causes the sensation. The logic tree breaks down a bit. I also have some continued qualms about the passionless, detached life this approach might lead to.
  • Big picture positive: I may aim for the more “surface” goals of a clear mind, increased mindfulness, an intentionally detached stance to many emotions, a subtler understanding of my breath, a subtler understanding of physical sensations, and a stronger control of which thoughts I surface to conscious attention and when. Of course, those are not at all easy things to pick up, and are “surface” only in comparison to how Goenka describes his Vipassana objectives. Indeed, apart from any comparison, I believe these skills themselves can be transformative. I can already feel them transforming my life.

Overall: highly recommended.