Six weeks ago I started my new job at a human capital consulting company. I settled into my new apartment, set up a new productive schedule to follow , and read a few new books. Below are a few of my observations and thoughts.
I’m an “idea guy.” There’s a whole line of thought about how ideas are worthless and execution is everything and blah blah blah. I don’t care; I think it’s fun to have ideas and think about innovative ways to solve problems.
At work, I’m not shy about sharing new ideas, but they get mixed reactions. What’s interesting is that it generally mimics my experience talking about my side project, TrekDek, with various people.
a) If it’s a bigger, long-term idea that would require a significant change in the way my co-workers operate, I get a polite “oh that would be cool but we’re already doing it this way so let’s think about this later.” It’s a nice rejection (though still frustrating).
b) If I’m pitching the same idea to a more senior co-worker, they are more receptive and are willing to engage with me and discuss the idea some more, but not enough to get them “on-board.”
c) If I’m pitching a small idea that can be immediately useful to a task or project, I get very positive feedback. For example, I was assigned a task where I had to copy and paste a lot of data from a PDF to an excel sheet. I found a program that allowed me to do this much more efficiently and used it to save hours of copy and paste work. I told my project manager about this and she was much more enthusiastic and willing to put it into the project budget in the future (I used a free trial version but that expired).
Steve Blank discusses these reactions within the framework of customer development for start-ups. The customer development process is a way for start-ups or businesses with a new product to figure our what exactly their potential customers want. You develop a hypothesis, say, “My new Product A will solve problem Y.” During the customer development process you discover that your potential customer doesn’t actually have a problem Y, and that he is much more concerned about problem Z. Now you have to go back and change product A or develop a new product B.
In my case, I would pitch big idea A thinking it solved a huge problem Y, but get a much more positive to reception to minor improvement B which solves an immediate problem Z.
But there’s a problem if you’re trying to build a remarkable career based on mastery. The tasks or micro-innovations that are immediately useful don’t necessarily help you build mastery in a rare and valuable skill. Cal Newport addresses this in his post “Knowledge workers are bad at working.” For example, I had to edit a Powerpoint training for several hours and while it may be immediately valuable to have a polished Powerpoint, it’s not the kind of thing I’ll get paid big bucks to do in the future.
And that’s fine, but it makes it more important that I remain diligent in developing a rare and valuable skill.
Over the next year I think I’m going to have to approach my career from multiple angles:
a) Do very well in the tasks I’m assigned to do (the Powerpoints, the data-gathering, the copy and paste jobs, etc). This will build a baseline credibility necessary to get things done. It sounds obvious (just do your job well) but it’s less obvious how this factors into the bigger picture.
b) Make time to develop rare and valuable skills. This will have to be done largely outside of work hours so that will be a bit of a challenge. Specifically, I will be focusing on data analysis in conjunction with Excel and database skills. I picked these because they’re relatively rare within the company. In addition, these skills will be valuable in almost any industry.
c) Be vigilant in exposing myself to “Black Swan” opportunities which will lead to “simulation failure” at my work. Black Swan events are unpredictable events that have disproportionate impact. The author who coined the term, Nassim Taleb, believes most people think they live in “mediocristan,” a hypothetical world in which most things are predictable and outlier events have little impact, but that we actually live in “extremistan” where random, unpredictable events have huge impacts. He gives examples like 9/11 or the internet or best-selling books as examples of black swan events. As it applies to careers, this could be any event that a has a huge and disproportionate impact on your career. It could be the one novel you write that takes off, the one coffee meeting you had that leads to a huge business deal, or that guy you met in college who you ended up starting a company with.
Cal Newport does an excellent job of explaining “simulation failure” and how it factors into impressive work. Basically, it’s any accomplishment that makes other people think “how the f### did he do that?”
In my case, I’m hoping to bring in new clients. This doesn’t sound impressive, but it’s completely outside of my job description, which will make it more impressive. More importantly, I hope to bring in the type of client that my company would like to have, but has not been able to just yet. I’m not sure I’ll be able to accomplish this at the moment, but I think by independently developing relationships with people at potential client companies, I’ll dramatically increase the odds of being on the receiving end of a positive black swan event that could dramatically improve my career outlook.
In short, I’m going to keep my mouth shut about my “big ideas,” do my work well, and independently develop skills and collect black swan lottery tickets.
In my last blog post I wrote about the productivity schedule I made for myself. Here’s what my schedule looked like:
0455 – 0515: Schedule my to-do list, have my first cup of coffee.
0530 – 0630: Weight training or running.
0700 – 0715: Schmoozing e-mails.
0715 – 0830: Alternate days between side project work and extra work related projects.
0900 – 1700: The actual job.
1800 – 1900: Dinner
1900 – 2030: Side project or work related reading.
2100 – 0455: Sleep
Here’s how it’s gone so far:
a) Exercise: I’m happy to report that I’ve maintained a near 100% compliance rate. I’ve maintained a 100% compliance rate with weight lifting three times a week. As for running, I missed one run completely, and I’ve reduced the intensity of my runs over the past few weeks. In fact, my runs are mostly walks. I found myself dreading my runs because I would run at a high intensity levels. It became unpleasant to do the first thing in the morning. I decided walking a short distance consistently is superior to running intensely inconsistently.
One thing I found particularly helpful in maintaining compliance is to have a half cup of coffee before I exercise. I set the coffeemaker to brew at 0445 so it’s ready to go when I wake up. It warms me up and gives me a few minutes to wake up my brain. I highly recommend having something hot to drink before you workout if you’re trying to establish a morning workout routine.
b) Networking E-mails : I maintained a compliance rate of approximately 25%. This is skewed though. It was a 100% for the first few weeks and almost 0% for the next few. The e-mails were easy to do when they were addressed to existing contacts. It was much harder to do with new people I was trying to reach. A catch-up e-mail would take about 5 minutes. A new e-mail to a new contact would take a half hour because I’d have to research the person, find his or her e-mail, and then compose a customized e-mail. It requires way more energy.
Solution: I’m going to move this activity to the weekend and make it a weekly event rather than a daily event.
c) Side Project Work: I pretty much failed at this task. I would get back from my workout and instead of working on my side projects, I would browse the internet. I then discovered I would rather go to work early and come home early than work on my side project. The problem is I was still tired after work and would have very little energy to do side project work in the evening.
Solution: I’m going to make this a weekly event and move it to Saturday. Getting something done once per week is better than 0 times per week
d) Reading: I probably had a 50% compliance rate, but the reading I did do was done in bed. I mostly watched tv during the evening and it became difficult to tear myself away from a show.
Solution: I’m going to do my weeknight reading in bed from now on as opposed to maintaining it as an “after-work” activity.
e) My Real Job: I found that I enjoy getting to work and leaving early. Monday through Thursday I’ll work from 0745-1645 (9 hours) and then on Friday I’ll work a half day (0745-1245). Half day Fridays are great. I’m going to maintain this schedule from now on.
Overall I think I did ok. I’m happy about my early morning fitness habit. I’m less happy about my side project work and networking but I think once I make my adjustments I’ll get more done.
Thoughts for 2013
It’s hard to believe how many changes I’ve made over the past few years. I graduated college, went into the Navy, left the Navy, taught English in Cairo, moved to Portland, started my own company/side project, moved back to hometown, started a job with a defense company, left that job, moved to DC, lived in a hostel, got a new job, and got a real apartment.
I think I’ve gotten very good life lessons in dealing with change and ambiguity.
That being said, I’m excited to have 2013 be a little more stable. I’m excited to be able to focus on developing rare and valuable skills and do well at my job. I’m also excited for the unknown opportunities that I’m hoping to cultivate.
Here’s to a successful 2013!