The Power of the Mind

How do you react to extremely bad news? Do you shut down, cry, or get angry? I've done each of the above and/or a combination of them at various points of my life, but I tend to shut down when it's really bad.

By shut down I mean I just zone out. Think zombie. I go somewhere deep to stop feeling, thinking, caring...or anything else that will threaten to push me over the edge. 

But our mind is a wonderful and powerful thing. 

Even when you think you can't handle one more piece of bad news, one more disappointment, one more concern or you will seriously lose figures out how to cope. For me, that's the shut down. I eventually come out of it, usually after collapsing into sleep or being forced to take care of my responsibilities. 

Each day I shut down less and am able to cope more. Each day there is less highs and lows and more just moving on with life. 

Eventually there is even hope.

So however bleak it gets—job loss, business collapse, major expense you can't afford, or G-d forbid even worse—there is always the other side, even if you can't believe it at the moment. 

Fortunately our mind will do what it must for us to get to that other side. 

I hope you haven't had cause to come out of the depths of despair, but if you have, how did you cope?

Double Down on Your Talents

As a fan of the Strength-Based Movement, having Tom Rath encourage doubling down on one's natural talents in his book Are You Fully Charged? The 3 Keys to Energizing Your Work and Life was not a surprise.

Tom Rath's late mentor and grandfather, Don Clifton, was the founder of Gallup's StrengthFinder, so one of the first to recognize the importance of pursuing one's strengths. 

To summarize, we each have natural abilities—strengths—that make us uniquely who we are. Although we can try to develop our weaknesses to be more well rounded, we will never truly reach our potential or true success unless we pursue our strengths. 

Life will often challenge the pursuit and full development of your strengths, but to truly succeed, why not become more of what you already are instead of trying to be someone you are not? Instead of telling our children that they can be whatever they want to be, we should help them recognize who they already are and encourage them to double down on these talents.

Studies show, as Tom shares, that those with jobs aligned to their strengths not only produce more in shorter periods of time, but also get positive energy from being true to themselves. Those that are not are fighting their inherent selves, will feel depleted, and will never truly succeed regardless of how hard they try. Think Sisyphus. Not a pleasant image yet something so many of us are doing without realizing the full implication.

And to get the benefit of both your strengths and the meaning necessary for a truly energized life, find the overlap between your strengths, your interests, and what others need.

Even if you can't leave your less than ideal job, you can find meaningful activities that align with your strengths and try to spend more time on those. 

Think of everything you've done on the job last week. Which activities just felt right and natural and made you feel great afterwards? Is there a way you can spend more time doing that and/or ensure you do some of that every day?

Pursuit of Happiness Unhealthy?

Tom Rath, in his latest book Are You Fully Charged? The 3 Keys to Energizing Your Work and Life, discusses the difference between happiness and meaning.

Happiness, unlike meaning, is a more selfish and lonely activity: you are looking to take or get joy for yourself. Meaning, on the other hand, is about giving and/or improving things for someone else, which gives purpose to your activity and life.

Tom shares a study done by Barbara Fredrickson of University of North Carolina. Apparently people who pursue only happiness exhibit the same stress-related gene patterns as those who undergo repeated adversity. This gene pattern triggers an inflammatory response and eventually chronic inflammation, which has been linked to conditions such as cancer and heart disease.

So selfishly pursuing your own happiness and not looking to give back leads to chronic illness. 

Tom of course ties this back to work and life, since finding meaning is one of the three keys to a fully energized life. Employees who find meaning at work are not only more fully engaged but also less likely to leave, and the companies with such employees have higher profit margins. 

He also explains that those chasing happiness are less likely to find it than those chasing meaning. 

This is also why pursuing passion instead of meaning at work won't lead to the perfect career: passion in work, like happiness, is selfish, whereas starting the pursuit by finding the overlap of one's interest, strengths, and what others need is not.

Although I agree that meaning should be our goal, and it's become more important to me the older I get, I don't think all pursuit of happiness will lead to illness. I'm curious (and may look up) whether the experiment's participants had family and friends, or whether they were wealthy loners. I find it hard to believe that it's as black-and-white as this experiment makes it sound. 

I think the 80/20 rule should apply here too: if you spend 80% of your time on meaningful activities and work, it is perfectly okay—and healthy—to spend 20% of your time on your own happiness. I'd go so far as to argue that the 20% will actually help recharge you and make the 80% effort more effective.

What do you think? Is the pursuit of happiness unhealthy or does it just have to be balanced with meaning?

ROIs on Documents and Tools

Bernhard Schroeder's premise in his book Fail Fast or Win Big: The Startup Plan for Starting Now is spending all that time on a business plan instead of on the business will actually help you fail, not succeed.

Apparently business plans were needed at one point in history and then became expected and part of business school curriculum. But while you spend hours on the document only needed for investors and no one else, your competitors are out there actually doing the work and getting to market faster. Bernhard presents all options for funding, including going the equity route, but recommends you start lean with this as with everything else. And even some VCs now, like Sequoia Capital, no longer want that long document.

Although the business plan itself is obsolete, as per Bernhard, some of the information within it is still necessary; e.g., market research and the business model. Sequoia Capital requires these and other relevant information in 15-20 slides instead of in a 40 page document.

Personally, I hate long papers/documentation of any kind. My biggest worry about going back for my MBA is having to write academic papers again. I'm all about short, to the point, and get it done.

This is also one of the reasons I've not gone the official Project or Product Manager route: too much of their job is gathering information into long and standardized documents. And although I understand the need for some of them, I am just not the right person to do this well.

But this brings up a larger topic: ROI on documentation.

I've written before on meetings and offered questions to help determine which have value and which do not. Similarly, below are question to help evaluate which documents have enough of an ROI:
  1. Who is this document intended for and what is its purpose?
  2. Is there any other method or format to achieve this same purpose?
  3. How much time will be spent on this document? And by how many people?
  4. Does the potential benefit of this document warrant the time/resources spent?
  5. How many times will it be used, for how long, and by how many people?
  6. And if the ROI on the resources spent is not there, can a condensed version or another method/format get the same or close enough benefit with a better ROI?
I may be prejudiced, but I don't think most of the long business documents will stand up to this test. 

And similar questions can and should be used for all "tools" being considered that require much time and/or people for setup. We shouldn't just be doing something because it's the way it's been done, but instead, if we know that it will take hours of precious time, we should question its ROI. Managers should encourage this too since, as everyone is pointing out these days (and I've blogged about), time is our most precious asset and every moment spent doing one thing is a no to another thing and a potential opportunity lost.

Are there time-consuming things you've been doing just because it's expected of you? Is the ROI there?

Self Identity and Worth

Do you really know what your self identity and worth are tied to?

What is the thing that you think makes you who you are? Is it your family, friends, and values? Or is it your title, professional contribution, and salary? Or it something else altogether?

I thought I knew what mine was tied to: having a meaningful impact. 

I've been between jobs a few times, whether due to being let go or voluntarily leaving a place that was making me miserable, and I have always felt lost during those times. Since I can't remember the last time I had a nine-to-five job and since I tend to give my all to anything I consider worth doing, I thought it was lack of meaningful employment that made me feel this way. I was wrong. 

Yes, I need to be making a contribution and for my work and life to have meaning, but if that contribution does not have a salary or income associated with it (e.g., working on my own business or contributing my time to a worthy cause), I still feel lost. This may sound superficial or short-sighted and made me feel bad until I realized the reasons behind it.

Part of my self-worth comes from contributing to my family's financial well-being and security. That paycheck is therefore necessary since financial stability is very important to me and necessary for my peace of mind. This is just who I am, right or wrong, and why without that salary, I will keep feeling adrift.

What about you? Are you sure you know what your self-identity and worth are tied to?

Business Your Own Way

The Glitter Plan: How We Started Juicy Couture for $200 and Turned it Into a Global Brand by co-founders Pamela Skaist-Levy and Gela Nash-Taylor (with Booth Moore) is an unusual business memoir.

It was an enjoyable read and interesting to follow Pam and Gela's journey from the original $200 investment to how they learned things—often the hard way—and managed to keep it fun and authentic until Liz Claiborne's new management took over. 

Pam and Gela are very forthcoming about what they did right and wrong and what they learned along the way. They also share many funny anecdotes and repeat tips from that part of the journey at the end of each chapter.

What keeps playing in my mind is the sense of fun and joy they had until the end: they loved what they did, loved working together, and just intuitively knew what would work. Part of the reason, as they repeat several times, is that they were their own customer. If they would wear it and love it, so would others.

Other books have claimed that you have to love your own product and be its best spokesperson to achieve success (Michael Hyatt's Platform: Get Noticed in a Noisy World is another I've blogged about earlier). Pam and Gela are living examples of this by having created an entire product line and global brand to clothe the world their way: fun, fashionable, yet comfortable clothing one could proudly wear anywhere. 

Neither of them had MBAs or any business school education. They just tried something and learned from what worked and what didn't. Even when things went horribly wrong, they managed to support each other, find the humor in the situation, and keep going. 

Truly something to aspire to.

For me, this is the definition of true work-life balance: Where both are naturally intertwined and extensions of each other. Where your work is something you enjoy and need and it leaves you feeling fulfilled and recharged. Where life is further inspiration for work and you wouldn't have it any other way. 

Do you agree? If not, what is your definition of work-life balance? What do you aspire to?

Crazy Is Sometimes Necessary

So despite all my reading and writing about prioritization and doing what's important, I've missed one too many gym visits lately. I can make excuses as to why I haven't been, but they're excuses so don't really matter. 

Today I gave myself no options, built-in a motivator (stopped at the B&N on the way), and had a great workout—at nearly eleven p.m., which I admit is crazy. But you know what? I feel great and am so happy to have lifted those weights again. Hopefully I won't have to resort to this craziness next time, but even if I do, I know it's doable and I have one less excuse. 

Sometimes you just have to take away the excuses and just do the thing you know you should, even if it's at a crazy time. Sometimes it takes crazy to finally get you started and to remind yourself of the thing's value. 

What have you been avoiding? Is there a crazy way you can kickstart it?

Every End Is a Beginning

Jack and Suzy Welch appropriately end off their great book The Real-Life MBA with a chapter on endings, explaining how each one is a beginning: an opportunity to reinvent oneself. 

Whether you're let go, resign, or retire, it's an opportunity to learn and find something better. They discuss learning from professional "whacks" earlier in the book and call these personal "whacks."

Being let go is the hardest of the three since it's involuntary. They encourage owning whichever part of the layoff was your fault so that you can learn and move on from the mistake. The other two (resigning and retiring) although voluntary, can still be painful (or bittersweet) and are opportunities to keep learning and do something else. If you haven't already found your Area of Destiny (see previous post), now's the perfect time.

Since I'm now transitioning, I needed this reminder. I had a painful ending a few months' back and although I am working on several side projects, I am still figuring out what's next and am actively reinventing myself. Given that transitions are stressful and make it hard to hold on to hope, reminders are crucial. This chapter reminded me that I will be able to make better decisions going forward, having learned more about myself.

I truly believe that as long as you learn from each of life's "whacks," you are better off for having lived through them. Perhaps they and the reinvention they offer were necessary for you to recognize that opportunity about to head your way.

Have you had occasion to reinvent yourself?

Find Your Area of Destiny

The third part of The Real-Life MBA by Jack and Suzy Welch focuses on one's career development and even includes a section on how to figure out what you're meant to do. 

I've read plenty of books on finding your calling, passion, life's work, etc. The system explained in this book is finding your Area of Destiny (AOD).

The way this is described is to consider two parallel roads. One is your strengths—the things you are really good at; the other are your passions—the things you love doing. Where the two roads intersect is your AOD and where you are meant to find work.

If you can figure out the jobs/careers that are at the intersection of your strengths and your passions, not only will you be happy and be able to succeed, work will also be something you look forward to and not a chore. This is what both Jack and Suzy Welch have found and what they want to help others find. The chapter includes stories of people fortunate to find their AOD, even if as a second career or later in life.

A similar concept to AOD was presented by Reid Hoffman and Ben Casnocha in The Startup of You. Instead of as parallel roads, they have them as intersecting circles and add a third one: market reality. It's not enough to know your assets (aka strengths) and aspirations (aka passion), but the market has to actually be willing to pay for it, otherwise you won't get far.

Although I'm certain the third factor is implied in the AOD system, it's good to spell it out to help keep one's thinking practical. This also answers those that are against following one's passion since they argue it won't pay the bills. The Welches, Reid, and Ben show that it is possible to do both, although not easy to find that intersection.

Since we spend so much time at work, having it be something we enjoy instead of the alternative is worth spending effort on. And personally having had jobs on both ends of that spectrum, I can attest to the difference it makes not only in your work, but in your life and health.

Do you know your Area of Destiny? 

Employee Retention

Jack and Suzy Welch spend an entire chapter in The Real-Life MBA discussing employee retention and suggest two interesting ideas for the latter.

After touching on the importance of ongoing reviews—so that every employee knows how well they're doing (which I agree with and have blogged about earlier)—they take this further by suggesting quarterly "differentiation" reviews. The purpose of these are to inform employees where they rank in the department: top superstar 20%, valuable mid 70%, underperforming lower 10%. This allows time and resources to be spent on those performing, with the underperformers given a chance to improve or then be helped out. They stress that an employee on the way out should be treated with as much respect as on their first day, both to protect the company's brand and to assure those left behind (also something I agree with and have blogged about before)

I was actually surprised that Jack promotes this "rank and yank" system since Yahoo's version, when Marissa incorporated it there, caused extreme and unhealthy competition instead of teamwork. Jack's answer to this: make teamwork a required behavior so that no one makes mid or higher levels without demonstrating this. Jack and Suzy discuss how this system and Net Promoter Score ratings have been implemented in their online MBA program. Not only does this encourage professors to improve, but to also reach out to and learn from the "superstars."

The other interesting suggestion they make is to empower Human Resources by having them focus on recruiting, development, and culture with finance handling the administrative parts of HR's job. This way HR can ensure a great team is hired and retained with ongoing employee development and a thriving culture that they carefully cultivate.

I have to give differentiation more thought since I had been against ranking before reading this, but I love the idea of empowering HR. I've long had interest in HR and especially employee development (and am playing this role for 24/7 Teach now), and think HR focusing on the "human" part of the job is a win for everyone.

Does your company have high turnover? If not, what do they do right to keep employees happy and engaged?

Businesses Are Either Growing or Dying

I've started reading The Real-Life MBA by Jack and Suzy Welch. I actually bought the book two days before enrolling in their MBA program (through the Jack Welch Management Institute) and am really enjoying the book so far.

They start by explaining that for any business to succeed, it has to have alignment between its mission, behaviors, and consequences. Mission is defined as the company's destination (where is it going), behaviors as its transportation (what actions are necessary for it to get there), and consequences are how these are rewarded (or punished).

Although the book has great ideas on how one can work towards alignment and deal with nasty surprises (what they call getting "whacked"), I want to focus on the next chapter: growth.

As they point out, anything that is not growing is dying, so companies have to be actively growing at all times. Growth is also what makes a company culture exciting and a job meaningful.

Some tips to help achieve growth:
  1. hire new talent that will bring in fresh perspectives;
  2. don't dilute innovation funds, instead concentrate them on the few projects that will have the most benefit;
  3. put your top talent on the important innovation projects;
  4. encourage everyone to look for ways to incrementally improve their work and reward these incremental innovations;
  5. update your compensation plan so that you're rewarding (and tracking) what will lead to growth;
  6. remove those that refuse to innovate so that they do not jeopardize everyone else's momentum.
Even having read only four chapters, it's obvious that although Jack is all about succeeding in business, this is not at the expense of employees and morale. He recognizes that nothing is possible without true leadership and spells out what this means, both in good times and in bad times, with plenty of examples to back this up.

And having worked both for companies that are growing and those that are not, I can vouch for the different impact each has on morale.

How have you or your employers encouraged growth? Did it work?

Promotion vs. Prevention Focused

As Heidi Grant Halvorson explains in her book No One Understands You and What to Do About It, our brain jumps to quick and biased impressions when first meeting someone. Not only are we not as easy to understand as we think we are, but the more distracted the person perceiving us is, the more likely his brain is to take shortcuts to get the job done.

To better understand how we come across to new people, it helps to understand some of the biases people perceive each other through, which Heidi explains as "lenses." In my previous post I explained one of the lenses used: friend/power/ego. Another lens used is promotion vs. prevention focus. 

For the promotion-focused people, opportunities are great and life is all about potential and the necessary risk and failure that goes along with it. For the prevention-focused people among us, life is about mitigating risk and potential loss. Promotion-focused people are looking to improve their lot in life while prevention-focused people are looking to hang on to the status quo. Promotion-focused people are therefore elated by success while prevention-focused ones will be more calm: the former will be thrilled at having their risk pay off; the latter will be relieved things didn't go badly, as they had anticipated and worked to prevent.

So if your boss is promotion-focused, go ahead and explain the golden opportunity that you cannot miss. But if your boss is prevention-focused, focus on how much more they have to lose by not acting on the opportunity.

As Heidi reminds us, we should use our new awareness to try and not jump to false impressions about others we meet. One way to do so is to remind ourselves that we want to be fair. Apparently keeping this top of mind when meeting someone new, even if we're distracted at the time, reduces the likelihood of a biased impression occurring.

The book was fascinating and gave me lots to think about, both in how I potentially came across at different times in my life and perhaps incorrectly perceived others. Knowing the above, what are you going to do differently next time you're introduced to someone new?

Long Weekend Recharging

Happy Independence Day and holiday weekend to all. 

I'll be taking this opportunity to do some more reading, recharging, and thinking and will be back on Monday with my usual type of posts. 

Hope you all get to rest and recharge as well.

Our Brain and First Impressions

If you're a fan of Pride and Prejudice like me, when you hear "first impressions" you think of how Lizzie and Darcy nearly didn't get together due to false first impressions. Apparently this is the norm, not the exception, since our brain is lazy.

As Heidi Grant Halvorson explains in her book No One Understands You and What to Do About It, our brain's default is to take shortcuts and jump to conclusions based on circumstantial clues. This gets worst when we're distracted, and once we've made that first impression, it's hard for us to admit we're wrong. We'll go so far as to ignore discrepancies (e.g., a beautiful person can't be evil!) since the cognitive dissonance causes us mental pain.

Reading the above was pretty scary since we're all very distracted these days and are probably jumping to biased conclusions without being aware of this. Understanding some of the biased "lenses" in play will help us improve both how we see others and are seen by them.

One of the series of lenses we see people through are their relative usefulness and standing compared to us:
  1. Are they friend or foe? And if we determine that they're an ally, can we count on them to do what they say they'll do?
  2. Are they more or less powerful? If less, are they useful to us or not?
  3. Are they a threat to our ego? Are we in competition for the same resources (e.g., boyfriend or promotion) or are they one of "us" and therefore we can share in each other's glory?
Knowing that these questions are always being asked on a subconscious level, you can plan for them. For example, make eye contact to show you're friendly and confident; explain to a more powerful person why you're worth their time; and diminish your threat to someone's ego by finding something to bond over.

Does the above explain why a previous encounter went wrong? What could you have done differently knowing the above?