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Timing

If time is a river, I’ve been swimming upstream all day.

I scheduled an appointment today, and when I got there it turns out I needed a document I won’t have for another week. Then I was an hour late to a video conference because I apparently don’t understand how British Daylight Savings Time works.

If I had known I would need the document, I wouldn’t have gone to the appointment. If I hadn’t gone to the appointment, I would have seen the notification that the video conference had started and been able to jump right on. And if I had known the video conference was actually starting an hour earlier, I would have been able to run an errand for my wife that I had told her I wouldn’t be able to run because of the video conference.

Timing is everything, as they say.

None of these things were critical, and they all resolved fine. A rescheduled appointment is only the most minor of inconveniences. The host of the video conference was understanding and had no problem reviewing some information with me, and we’re meeting again in a week. My wife is of course perfectly capable of running this small errand herself, it just meant an extra trip for her. So nothing burned down or exploded and nobody died.

But it was such a reminder of how important those small details are, and how quickly they can cascade when you miss even one.

A Very Nice Thing

I received a comment yesterday that really resonated with me. Before I tell you what it was, I want to talk about why it meant a lot to me.

I look around me, and every day I see people being absolutely amazing at their thing. Their job, or hobby, or passion – I just see people crushing it, and I love it. I always make sure to say so any time I can. I like telling people that I was impressed by their accomplishments.

Likewise, I enjoy a good compliment on my own successes. I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t always take them well; I find myself defaulting to comments about how it could have been better or how I’ll improve the next iteration. I always make sure to express sincere gratitude, though – such comments really do mean a lot.

This comment I received, however, was very different. It made me realize that there’s a kind of compliment worth giving that I don’t give enough.

The comment I received was (paraphrased slightly): “I see how hard you’re working on this particular flaw you have, and I respect and support you for it.”

I hadn’t accomplished anything; hadn’t reached any milestone or success. I was struggling. But this person took the time to tell me that my struggle was appreciated and the work I was doing, even before reaching my goal, was worthwhile.

I don’t do that enough; I think most people don’t, in fact. We compliment the visible success, and not the (often) invisible work to get there. The comment wasn’t just encouragement – she didn’t say “I know you’ll get there if you keep at it!” Encouragement is valuable too, but she went beyond that and actually told me that the struggle itself, right now, had merit.

That’s extremely important. Some things you never fully “succeed” at. You just keep pushing, keep improving, keep struggling. It’s easy to get discouraged, and to think you’re doing nothing but treading water and that you’re stuck with your flaws forever.

Taking a moment to tell someone that you see them improving can mean the world, then. I’ll endeavor to do it more, and I appreciate so, so much that it was said to me.

Sprint

It has been a wild few days for me. I’ve gotten a lot done in a short period of time.

I had to push myself harder than I normally go, and I had to really prioritize hard. I wasn’t super thrilled with what my “behind the scenes” work looked like. I felt sloppy for a lot of it.

But the end result was excellent. I accomplished my goals, and the end users of my work were really happy.

All these things that I do – they’re marathons. Consistent effort over time. But sometimes within the Greater Marathon you need a burst of speed and energy to get over a hump, and it’s good to remember how to sprint.

Two Hundred

Yesterday I made my 200th post on The Opportunity Machine.

Neat! It feels like approximately five minutes since I posted my 100th post (which I wrote about here, and haha I also said “Neat!” at the beginning of that, I’m so lame). That’s a powerful lesson; don’t try to get to 100 posts, or 200, or any particular number. Of anything. Just take the steps. You’ll get there.

Lofty goals are meaningless alone; daily action makes the world go ’round. Stick to it. Make it a habit, a part of who you are. The results will fall into place around those habits. Put in the big rocks, and treasure the occasional glimpse of your success, but stick to the action goals. Even if your eventual plans are ten years away, make bite sized steps towards them. You’ll face plenty of failures, but you’ll learn from them, and then you’ll let them go.

Incidentally, this happened at the same time as another little milestone – I just passed 20,000 words in my book! They’re very, very raw and the more I write the more I realize just how big of a task the editing process will be. But you can’t edit what isn’t written, so for now I’m just focused on getting the raw clay down. One of the big barriers I used to have was being too much of a perfectionist about my own writing. This blog has REALLY helped me cure that, because when you have to deliver something every day, they won’t all be gold. But they will be valuable none the less.

There is value in virtually anything you choose to do to challenge yourself, anything you do to not just be a passive bystander in your own existence. Pick a thing and do it once. Then twice. From there, it’s all fun.

Class

I often try to categorize behaviors I observe in others in an attempt to understand the patterns of that behavior. My goal is better prediction, so I can get ahead of potential problems or hurdles in order to more effectively manage my relationships with others.

I know that sounded pretty clinical, but really that all just meant “I try to actually think about why people behave the way they do.”

I also draw a lot of connections between observed patterns of behavior and certain results or other behaviors. Today I’m going to write about one such connection I’ve observed.

I’ve worked with a lot of people in my career. I’ve worked in some pretty large corporations and most of my career has been very workforce-focused, so I’ve interacted with an above-average number of people. And I’ve noticed what appears to be a good early indicator of career success.

A lot of people (a disheartening amount, I would say), automatically group everyone employed by the same company into two categories: “people I work with” and “people I work for.” In other words, they class-divide their workforce in their own minds, and treat the two groups as being incredibly distinct, often even adversarial.

(I should note: Though I see this more often in non-managerial employees, the phenomenon absolutely exists in management, in which case the two categories are “people I work with” and “people that work for me.” Just as unhealthy and everything I’m about to write applies to both.)

That’s fundamentally an unhelpful way of looking at the organization of a team, and if you do that (from either side of this imaginary line!) you’re hurting both yourself and your organization. A big early indicator of career success seems to be avoiding this trap.

As soon as you fall into this trap, you’ve put an unnecessary emotional bias into every interaction at work. Organizational hierarchy should exist only as a tool of efficiency, to help solve problems and organize work. It’s not a moral judgement or a relative measure of “worth.” Whether you’re an entry-level employee who sees managers as an unpleasant intrusion into your life, or a manager who sees non-managerial employees as pawns for you to command, you’re up to your ears in a terrible mindset that will rob you of success.

Not only do we all work together and have shared goals, but we aren’t distinct species. Those lines are all made up, and they get plenty blurred as well. As organizational needs change, so may those categories. Even if you don’t consider the relationship adversarial, just thinking of certain co-workers as fundamentally “different” because of their place in the org chart is not the way to succeed.

People who view their co-workers at different managerial levels not as distinct categories but simply as co-workers with a different function do much better in their careers. If you work in the marketing department as an associate, you probably view Jim in IT as just a co-worker with a different job function than you. You should view Sarah, the director of the marketing department, the same way – just a co-worker with a different function than you. If you are Sarah, you should view Steve the marketing associate the same way; not as someone “below” you, but someone who’s job is closely related to yours but different.

What’s strange to me is that the idea that people whose job is to help organize other people would somehow be considered “different” in the first place. This idea is so unusual to me, yet so apparently commonplace, that I started giving serious thought to why the idea seems to be so pervasive, and why people who haven’t even entered the workforce yet seem to have it automatically, so frequently!

Here is my theory: School. Forget about what you do in school, and just think about how it’s organized from a workforce management perspective. In school, there are absolutely two distinct “classes” of people. You have the student body, and the staff. There is no crossover; they are truly distinct. You never have one of your other teachers also sitting as a student in a different class, and no student ever gets “promoted” to teacher mid-way through the school year for good performance. The lines are absolutely rigid.

And of course, they’re often adversarial! Sure, students are ostensibly there to learn and teachers are ostensibly there to teach. But talk to any high school student OR teacher and you’ll hear plenty of stories of conflict. Students try to get over on teachers, teachers try to wrangle students, and the inherent power struggle is a constant, pervasive feature of high school life.

So most people go through years of existing in an environment where there are clear, distinct authority figures who have tons of control over you. Even if you’re a teacher’s pet with no conflict, you’re still viewing teachers as fundamentally “above” you; someone to sidle up to and impress. Your relationship might be adversarial or it might not, but the environment teaches you that in either case it’s not equal. They’re not your peers.

If you go to college, it’s the same scenario, so whether you go to college after high school or don’t, doesn’t matter. What happens is that whenever you’re done school, you’re dumped into the workforce, and you encounter a situation that superficially looks a lot like what you just left.

You see “authority figures,” a small number of elite, usually older, people, and then a larger mass of people under them. This looks a lot like school looked, and since you have plenty of experience there and virtually none in the work force, you automatically start to draw the same conclusions. Since you could never cross the student/staff line, you start by believing you can’t cross the employee/manager line. That those two groups are distinct, that they have totally different goals (not just different functions but serving the same goal), and that they’re probably at least to some degree adversarial.

You learn to view the world by class, in class.

I find that mistake completely understandable, all things considered. But none the less, the people that don’t make that error will do much better.

The Trenches

“Knowledge Proximity” is an important thing when it comes to solving problems.

Heck, it’s important for even knowing the problems exist. To understand why, you have to understand the life cycle of “the problem” as a discrete entity.

Very, very rarely do problems happen all at once, starting out as massive issues. Yeah, every once in a while a jet plane falls out of the sky onto your office building and now you’ve got a big problem, but that’s absolutely the exception.

Problems start small, so small as to be almost invisible. Then they spread like a fire, like a virus, like a ripple in a pond – use your preferred analogy. When they’re that tiny, the same thing is true about them that’s true of any tiny thing: you can only see it if you know to look and you’re looking very closely.

That means you need both a level of knowledge of relevant warning signs, and you need to be close to where the problem can originate. The people with those two qualities in any organization are generally the people in the trenches.

A brilliant leader, manager or CEO can come up with great strategies to solve big problems. But no matter how brilliant they are, they can’t see every small problem before it becomes a big one. And who wants to be a brilliant leader spending all your time putting out fires? You’d rather be building something.

One of the first things you should build, then, is a really good pipeline of knowledge from the trenches about what’s happening out there. In a certain sense, the cashier at a local McDonald’s knows a LOT more than the CEO does, even if they don’t know what to do with that knowledge.

Scale, of course, becomes a problem. One CEO can’t listen to direct first-hand reports from a million employees. So you figure out how many people a good manager can pay attention to, and layer accordingly. But then you run into the problem of all those layers just serving to insulate the top leadership from the trenches even further. You can’t listen to a million people directly, but you also can’t expect to put ten layers of management between you and the trenches and expect to get timely, accurate or honest information.

This is one of the reasons that large-scale organizations, whether they’re corporations, governments, etc., have such inefficiencies when compared to smaller ones. The only real solution is to both layer, and provide autonomy to the greatest extent you can to those layers. That way, the information doesn’t actually have to make its way from a cashier to a CEO before action can be taken.

If you’re a leader, respect the knowledge proximity of the people in the trenches, and build everything you can to get access to it.

Sandwiches, Heaps & Wolves

I warn you in advance that this is going to be a weird post.

First question: What is a sandwich?

This has prompted a fair amount of debate! You might even find yourself, upon reviewing this chart, getting irrationally mad at up to 8 hypothetical groups of people. I’m going to give my answer, but I’m going to give it closer to the end of this post. Hold on to that thought for now!

Next, we have another question that raises some fair amount of debate: How much of something is a “heap” of that thing?

The tricky part of this thought follows basically this idea: If you have 10,000 pennies in one spot, that’s probably a “heap” of pennies (assuming they’re all just piled up and not organized in some other way). If you remove one penny, do you still have a heap? Sure. So that means that “A Heap of Pennies – One Penny = A Heap of Pennies,” which means literally one penny is a heap. Heck, it means zero pennies is a heap!

My solution to that fun little puzzle is that “heaps” aren’t things. They’re descriptors, and descriptors don’t have concrete definitions, even as nouns. They’re just words we use to transmit ideas but that don’t have Platonic Ideals.

A wolf exists. There is a specific kind of thing that is a wolf. We’ve categorized it pretty deeply; there’s a specific type of DNA that tells cells to grow into Canis lupus, and the resulting creature is distinct from other types of creatures. If I ask you “what is a wolf,” you can give me a pretty concrete answer that doesn’t depend on a lot of outside factors.

A “pet,” on the other hand, isn’t a distinct thing. It’s a descriptor. There’s no single definition of a “pet” that doesn’t rely on a relationship to an outside entity. Even though it’s a noun, it describes a thing more than defining it.

I think “heap” is like “pet,” not like “wolf.” It’s a word we use to describe something, and it’s relationship to other things. A heap describes a penny’s relationship to other pennies (nearby in large amounts!) and also to us (in a pile that’s too inconvenient to count!). There’s a Platonic ideal of a penny or a wolf, but not of a heap or a pet.

Or a Sandwich.

See, I told you I’d give my answer. On that chart above, I’m a “structure purist, ingredient rebel.” I think “sandwich” is a descriptor, and what it’s describing is how food is arranged, relative to other food and relative to the person eating it. I don’t think it matters what the sandwich is made of, in the same sense that a pet can be anything and you can have a heap of anything. But also, I wouldn’t call a flock of birds a “heap” just because there are many of them together, nor would I call a television a “pet” just because it stays in your house and makes noise. For descriptor nouns, form is important but substance isn’t. Therefore, a sandwich can be any food at all, but it must follow the form of something “sandwiched” between something else.

Was there a point to this post? Yes – I’ve now had this discussion at least 3 times, and I never want to have it again. So now I can just link this blog post. Also, I write whatever I want, that’s why!