A book that curates short articles from different authors, many which appear in my note list. It’s a compilation of books, so to speak. This book will teach you things like networking, learning new habits and skills, and re-creating your career. If you don’t know any of the authors covered, I highly recommend it.
Date Finished: 18/03/2014
Here’s a link to the Amazon page.
Cultivating Your Craft Before Your Passion
Bill McKibben is an environmental journalist. He became famous for his 1989 book, The End of Nature, which was one of the first popular accounts of climate change. He has since written more than a dozen books and become a prominent environmental activist.
McKibben’s story highlights two lessons that my research has shown to be crucial for understanding how people build working lives they love.
Lesson 1: What You Do for a Living Matter Less than You Think
McKibben built a career he loved as a writer. Having studied him, however, I would argue that there are many different career paths he could have followed with an equal degree of passion. The two things that seem to really matter to McKibben are autonomy (e.g., control over what he works on, when he works on it, where he lives, etc.) and having an impact on the world. Therefore, any job that could provide him autonomy and impact would generate passion.
This pattern is common in people who love what they do. Their satisfaction doesn’t come from the details of their work but instead from a set of important lifestyle traits they’ve gained in their career.
To build a career, the right question is not “What job am I passionate about doing?” but instead “What way of working and living will nurture my passion?”
Lesson 2: Skill Precedes Passion
McKibben was able to gain autonomy and impact in his career only after he became really good at writing.
Bill McKibben’s story, by contrast, highlights a more sophisticated strategy for cultivating passion—one deployed by many who end up with compelling careers. It teaches us that we should begin by systematically developing rare and valuable skills. Once we’ve caught the attention of the marketplace, we can then use these skills as leverage to direct our career toward the general lifestyle traits (autonomy, flexibility, impact, growth, etc.) that resonate with us.
Put another way: don’t follow your passion, cultivate it.
Re-Imagining Your Career, Constantly
What kinds of skills should people be cultivating?
I think the most important skill in the age of flux is the ability to get new skills. To constantly be open to new areas of learning and new areas of growth. That is what will make you most valuable to the employer, partner, start-up of the future. And it is also what gives you the most options moving forward. That doesn’t mean that you should be a dilettante. You have to develop a certain level of expertise in whatever area you choose. But you need to have very little tolerance for stagnation, and if something you’re working on doesn’t go the way you wanted, you need to have a high capacity for discarding it and moving on to something else.
Finding Your Work Sweet Spot
There are two types of work in this world. The first is the obligatory kind, the work we do because of a job or a contract, often with an eye on the clock. The second—very different—type of work we do is “work with intention”.
If you can make “work with intention” the center of your efforts, you’re more likely to make an impact on what matters most to you. But how do you actually do that?
Aside from lots of hard work, great creative careers are powered by an intersection of three factors: interest, skill, and opportunity.
The same thinking applies to successful creative projects. The magic happens when you find the sweet spot where these three factors intersect.
1. Your (Genuine) Interests
What fascinates you? What topic do you like to discuss and read about the most?
Reaching for greatness without a genuine interest in the field is like running a marathon after fasting. Remarkable achievements are fueled by genuine interest.
2. Your Key Skills
What are your skills and your natural gifts? Do you have a knack for math or storytelling? Perhaps you possess a unique understanding of the human condition? Take an inventory of what you know or could easily learn. The skills you have are helpful indicators of the opportunities that are most likely to flourish under your leadership.
3. Your “Opportunity Stream”
The third factor that plays into every successful career is opportunity. Unfortunately, this is often where we get stuck, discounting the potential opportunities that surround us as inadequate. You must simply define “opportunity” as anything that brings you a step closer to your genuine interest.
Opportunity is less about leaps forward and more about slow but steady progress. Most folks I meet can track their greatest opportunities back to chance conversations. This is why personal introductions, conferences, and other networking efforts really pay off. Just surrounding yourself with more activity will inherently increase your “opportunity stream”—the chance happenings that lead you closer to your genuine interests.
Want to change the world? Push everyone you know to work within their ISO. Mentor people to help them realize their genuine interests and skills and capitalize on even the smallest opportunities around them. When it comes to your own career, make every decision with a constant eye toward your own intersection.
Focusing on Getting Better, Rather than Being Good
The kind of feedback we get from parents, teachers, and mentors when we are young has a major impact on the beliefs we develop about our abilities—including whether we see them as innate and unchangeable or as capable of developing through effort and practice. Telling a young artist that she is “so creative,” “so talented,” or “has such a gift” implies that creativity and talent are qualities you either have or you don’t. The net result: when a project doesn’t turn out so well, or the artist’s work is rejected, she takes it as evidence that she isn’t very “creative” or “talented” after all, rather than seeing the feedback as a sign that she needs to dig deeper, try harder, or find a new approach.
Two Mind-Sets: Be Good Vs. Get Better
We all approach the goals we pursue with one of two mind-sets: what I call the Be Good mind-set, where the focus is on proving that you already have a lot of ability and that you know exactly what you’re doing, and the Get Better mind-set, where the focus is on developing your ability and learning new skills. You can think of it as the difference between wanting to show that you are smart versus wanting to actually get smarter.
When we have a Be Good mind-set, we are constantly comparing our performance with that of other people’s, to see how we size up and to receive validation for our talents. This is the mind-set we end up with when we are given too much “ability” praise and come to believe that our talents are innate and unchanging. It’s also the mind-set we often (unconsciously) adopt when our environment is highly evaluative—when our work is constantly exposed to the judgment of others.
A Get Better mind-set, on the other hand, leads instead to self-comparison and a concern with making progress: How well am I doing today, compared with how I did yesterday, last month, or last year? Are my talents and abilities developing over time? Am I moving closer to becoming the creative professional I want to be?
The great thing about the Get Better mind-set is that it is practically bulletproof. When we think about what we are doing in terms of learning and improving, accepting that we may make some mistakes along the way, we stay motivated and persist despite the setbacks that might occur. We also find the work we do more interesting and enjoyable, and experience less depression and anxiety. We procrastinate less and plan better. We feel more creative and innovative.
Shifting Your Mindset
How can you retrain your brain and adopt the Get Better mind-set at work and in life?
- Give yourself permission to screw up. I can’t emphasize enough how important this is. Start any new project or endeavor by saying to yourself, “I may not get the hang of this right away. I’m going to make mistakes, and that’s okay.
- Ask for help when you run into trouble. Needing help doesn’t mean you aren’t capable—in fact, the opposite is true. Only the very foolish believe they can do everything on their own. And studies show that asking for help when you need it actually makes people think you are more capable, not less.
- Compare your performance today with your performance last week or last year, rather than comparing yourself with other people. I know that you can’t really avoid comparing yourself with others entirely, but when you catch yourself doing it, remind yourself that this kind of thinking doesn’t get you anywhere. What matters is that you are moving forward and improving over time.
- Think in terms of progress, not perfection. It can be helpful to write down your goals in whatever way you usually think of them—odds are you think of them in a Be Good way—and then rewrite them using Get Better language: words like improve, learn, progress, develop, grow, and become. For example:
- Your Be Good Goal: I want to be good at marketing my own work.
- The Get Better Version: I will develop my ability to market my own work and become a more effective marketer.
- Examine your beliefs and, when necessary, challenge them. When it comes to mastering any skill, your experience, effort, and persistence matter a lot. Change really is always possible—there is no ability that can’t be developed with effort. So the next time you find yourself thinking, “But I’m just not good at this,” remember: you’re just not good at it yet.
Developing Mastery Through Deliberate Practice
K. Anders Ericsson, arguably the world’s leading expert on performance, conducted the study with thirty young violinists attending the Music Academy of West Berlin, one of the most selective conservatories in the world. Ericsson’s aim was to understand, at the most granular level, not just what these talented musicians had in common but what set them apart from their colleagues.
Ericsson’s core finding is now the stuff of legend: namely that it takes ten thousand hours of what he calls “deliberate practice” to achieve true mastery in any skilled pursuit. Nothing less will do, but it’s possible for nearly anyone to reach excellence in nearly anything, given sufficient persistence and expert feedback along the way.
In Ericsson’s study, he divided the violinists into three groups based on their level of skill as measured by their teachers. The lowest level group practiced slightly less than ninety minutes a day. The top two groups both practiced an average of approximately four hours a day, in sessions no longer than ninety minutes, after which they took a break.
Nearly all those in the top two groups began practice first thing in the morning, when their energy was the highest and the number of distractions they faced the lowest. When they began to feel tired, as they approached ninety minutes, they rested and renewed. After three such sessions, they were spent for the day. Ericsson subsequently posited that four and a half hours is the natural human limit for the highest level of focus on a single task in any given day.
What We Can Learn from the Science of High Performance
Embedded in these findings are powerful and highly specific lessons for anyone seeking mastery. The first one has to do with the power of ritual. A ritual is a highly precise behavior you do at a specific time so that it becomes automatic over time and no longer requires much conscious intention or energy.
Will and discipline, it turns out, are highly overrated. We each have one reservoir we draw on, and it gets progressively depleted each time we use it to get something done. A ritualized approach to practice helps conserve our precious and finite reserves of energy.
The second mastery lesson from Ericsson’s violinists is that the best way to practice is in time-limited sprints, rather than for an unbounded number of hours. It’s far less burdensome to mobilize attention on a task if you’ve got clear starting and stopping points. The ability to focus single-mindedly lies at the heart of mastering any challenge. Time-limited sessions also make it easier to tolerate abstaining from distractions such as e-mail and social media.
The third key to mastery is perhaps the most counter-intuitive. It’s the importance of restoration. Many of us fear that taking time for rest and renewal will brand us as slackers.
Creating A Personal Ritual for Deliberate Practice
What’s the skill that you wish to develop the most? Keep in mind that you’ll be immeasurably more motivated if it’s something to which you’re drawn deeply.
Next, set aside one uninterrupted period of, say, sixty minutes each working day to build the skill you’ve chosen, preferably first thing in the morning. As your capacity for focus grows stronger over time, add fifteen minutes, and then another fifteen minutes, until you reach ninety.
The heart of achieving mastery, I’ve come to believe, is expanding the amplitude of the waves you make in your life. When you’re working, give it everything you’ve got, for relatively short periods of time. When you’re recovering, let go and truly refuel.
Learning to Live Outside Your Comfort Zone
What are the stages of skill acquisition?
In the 1960s, psychologists identified three stages that we pass through in the acquisition of new skills. We start in the “cognitive phase,” during which we’re intellectualizing the task, discovering new strategies to perform better, and making lots of mistakes. We’re consciously focusing on what we’re doing. Then we enter the “associative stage,” when we’re making fewer errors, and gradually getting better. Finally, we arrive at the “autonomous stage,” when we turn on autopilot and move the skill to the back of our proverbial mental filing cabinet and stop paying it conscious attention.
The OK Plateau Concept
The OK Plateau is that point when we reach the autonomous stage and consciously or unconsciously say to ourselves, “I am OK at how good I have gotten at this task,” and stop paying conscious attention to our improvement.
You can’t get better on autopilot. One thing that experts in field after field tend to do is use strategies to keep themselves out of that autonomous stage and under their conscious direction. That’s how you conquer those OK Plateaus.
The importance of practicing
The way to get better at a skill is to force yourself to practice just beyond your limits.
There’s no way to get good at anything without putting in the hours. But just as important as the quantity of time is the quality of time. If you’re not being rigorous with your practice and focusing on the hard parts, you will improve very slowly.
It’s hard to be your own coach, but not impossible. The key thing is to set up structures that provide you with objective feedback—and to not be so blind that you can’t take that feedback and use it.
When I was training my memory, I kept meticulous spreadsheets to track my performance. They allowed me to see what was working and what wasn’t. Numbers don’t lie.
Reprogramming Your Daily Habits
How to Change a Habit
The key to changing a habit is to realize the ineffectiveness of willpower. It’s not that willpower is unnecessary, but more that it’s a much less powerful tool than most of us assume. Because our willpower is limited, it helps to be clever in how we establish new habits.
Given this, I’ve found that it makes the most sense to invest heavily in the early phase of building a new habit so that, later, it will run automatically without calling on your resources of self-discipline. I call this the principle of focus, and it goes against the normal method people use when they want to change their behavior.
The Principle of Focus
Focus means changing only one habit at a time. I’ve found it best to spend at least one month exclusively on one habit before moving to the next.
The Principle of Consistency
The next insight for changing habits is called classical conditioning.
You can also use classical conditioning to speed up the process of habit change. By making the habit you’re working on extremely consistent, you speed up the time it takes to make the behavior automatic.
Consistency means that you try to do a habit the same way each time. Imagine you wanted to set up a deliberate practice routine, where you work on a tough skill you’re trying to master for your career. Let’s say you want to commit to working on it for around three hours per week.
One way you could do this is to do one hour, three days per week, when you have time. Some days you might do it before work, other days after; sometimes on weekdays and sometimes on weekends. This may work, but it’s hardly consistent. As a result, the habit will take a lot longer to become automatic.
Instead, imagine that you spent thirty-five minutes each day immediately after work on that skill. Now the behavior is very consistent. It takes place on the same days, in the same conditions, in exactly the same fashion.
Building Resilient Relationships
There’s never been a relationship that didn’t start off strongly and that didn’t then run off the rails at some stage.
Success for you lies in managing these dips when they occur. It’s not about having perfect relationships. That’s a fantasy. It’s about laying foundations for resilient relationships from the very start.
The How Vs. The What
At the heart of social contracting is spending time up front talking about the How—the relationship and how we’ll work together—rather than being seduced by the What, the excitement and urgency of the content, what needs to be sorted out and solved.
Just understanding that you should talk about the How will immediately make a difference in your working relationships. But to make it easier, here are five fundamental questions to ask and answer. You don’t need to ask them all. I’m sure you’ll find your own best combination for the person and the situation. Just make sure you ask some of them before things get rolling.
What do you want? (Here’s what I want.)
Of course you’ll want to articulate the transactional nature of things: I want you to get this done and get that completed. But see if you can go beyond that. What else do you want? (“I want this to position me for my next promotion.”) What else would make this relationship one to truly value? (“I want this to lay the foundations of future work together.”)
Where might you need help? (Here’s where I’ll need help.)
When you had a really good working relationship in the past, what happened? (Here’s what happened for me.)
Tell a story of a time when you were in a working relationship similar to this one, and it was good, really good. What did they do? What did you do? What else happened? What were the key moments when the path divided and you took one road and not the other? What else contributed to its success?
When things go wrong, what does that look like on your end? How do you behave? (Here’s how I behave.)
Tell another story, this time of when a working relationship like this one failed to soar. It might be when it all went hellishly wrong or it might be when it disintegrated into mediocrity. What did you do and what did they do? Where were the missed opportunities? Where were the moments when things got broken?
See also if you can summarize your own “hot buttons.” What are the little things that can wind you up? Is it not getting replies to your e-mails? When others are late to meetings? Not having a regular check-in? Being given advice before you’ve got to the heart of the question? Spelling mistakes and random apostrophes? We’ve all got our pet peeves. If they know yours and you know theirs, things might be a little less frustrating.
When things go wrong—as they inevitably will—how shall we manage that?
The power in this is twofold. First, you’re acknowledging reality: Things will go wrong. Honeymoons end. Promises get broken. Expectations don’t get met. By putting that on the table, you’re able now to discuss what the plan will be when it does go wrong.
Networking in a Connection Economy
What do people struggle with the most when it comes to connecting with others and building a network?
Asking. Nobody ever wants to ask—at every level, with every kind of person, from the CEO all the way down. I think people get very narrow-minded, thinking that they can only reach out to people who are already doing a similar type of job. But the underlying network science says that it’s all about weak links. Those people who are the friend of a friend of a friend. That’s a much more likely place for something important to happen to you than your inner circle of close friends and colleagues.
Do you have any particular strategies for reaching out to people?
Look at the people whom you admire most in your field. And literally map it out. Here are the four people that are doing great work at the organizations I respect. And just reach out. If you decided to contact one person a week, that would be fifty-two new people in a year. And it starts with that, just reaching out to someone because you admire their work, or are inspired by it. I’ve never met a person, no matter how well-known, who hasn’t been flattered by an authentic compliment. Professional love letters work.
How do you maintain the relationship from there?
You always want to be specific about what you’re asking for. Are you asking for a relationship? Are you asking for advice? Are you asking to follow up with them along the way, and occasionally reach out with a question? I think the best gauge for what’s fair to ask is flipping the tables: How would you feel if somebody approached you and asked this exact same thing? If you feel okay with it, then go ahead and do it. If you feel a little uncomfortable, then try to tweak it in a way that makes you feel okay about it.
What if I really want to get to know them, beyond just a cup of coffee?
Particularly when you’re thinking about creatives, there are a lot of people who have a day job at, say, an advertising agency, but their side projects are really what they care about most. If you can identify what that thing is, you have a chance to connect at the heart of what they care about.
Leading in a World of Co-Creation
Lead by Example, Not Just Authority
Keep your “hand in,” even if you move into a management role. Doing this will have several benefits: (1) on a personal level, you’ll derive satisfaction from doing the work yourself, (2) it will deepen your understanding of the challenges faced by your team, and (3) since most creatives make judgments based on talent and achievement, you’ll maintain the respect of your team.
Everything is Built on Relationships
So hone your communication skills just as keenly as your craft. Learn to write clear e-mails and compelling copy; to deliver persuasive presentations; to chair a productive meeting; to make those “difficult” conversations go more smoothly. Invest time in networking and building strong working relationships (not the same as friendships). When someone on your team needs help, offer it—what goes around comes around.
When you take charge of a project, start by inspiring people with your vision. And make sure all those involved are crystal clear about their responsibilities and non-negotiable deliverables. But don’t micro-manage or insist they do everything your way. If you really want to get the best out of them, leave plenty of gaps for them to fill with their creativity and initiative.
Build on Other’s Work
Start to listen to the conversations in your workplace: do people typically build on each other’s ideas (“Yes, and…”) or block them (“Yes, but”) and try to replace them with their own?
From now on, make a conscious effort to build rather than block. Start by asking “What’s already working? How can we build on it?” Look for opportunities to praise (sincerely). Say “Yes, and” instead of “Yes, but”—and encourage others to do the same.
Re-Engineering the Way We Think about Mistakes
So you think failure is universal? We can’t avoid it?
All of our paths are riddled with small and enormous failures. The key is being able to see these experiences as experiments that yield valuable data and to learn what to do differently next time.
Do you think that certain types of people are better at taking risks than others?
Trying new things requires a willingness to take risks. However, risk-taking is not binary—you aren’t a risk taker or not a risk taker. You’re likely comfortable taking some types of risks while finding other types uncomfortable. You might not even see the risks that are comfortable for you to take, discounting their riskiness, while you are likely to amplify the risk of things that make you anxious.
There are five primary types of risks: physical, social, emotional, financial, and intellectual. I often ask people to map their own risk profile. With only a little bit of reflection, each person knows which types of risks he or she is willing to take. They realize pretty quickly that risk-taking isn’t uniform.
So how do you start to balance your risk profile? Or should you?
There isn’t a need to change your risk profile; however, it is useful to understand it and to pursue the types of risks you feel comfortable taking and to avoid those that make you squirm. This insight allows you to fill out your team with people with complementary risk profiles so that each person plays to his or her strengths, taking on the types of challenges that match their profile.
Leaning into Uncertainty
Every creative endeavor, from writing a book to designing a brand to launching a company, follows what’s known as an Uncertainty Curve. The beginning of a project is defined by maximum freedom, very little constraint, and high levels of uncertainty. Everything is possible; options, paths, ideas, variations, and directions are all on the table. At the same time, nobody knows exactly what the final output or outcome will be. And, at times, even whether it will be. Which is exactly the way it should be.
Over time, the creators or teams begin to act. They spin all the crazy ideas in their heads onto the page, the digital landscape, the canvas, the business. With each trial, they begin to see what’s working and what’s not. Data and experience begin to replace intuition and leaps of faith. Freedom begins to yield to constraint, the variables and possibilities that created great uncertainty begin to become fact, creating more certainty about what the process will yield and whether it will succeed. The venture and its outcome begin to take form.
Finally, through much experimentation, the deed is done. The book is written. The brand is designed. The company is launched. The move made. Freedom, at least with regard to this phase of the endeavor, is gone, consumed by structure and form. Uncertainty has given way to certainty. You now know exactly what it looks and feels like, and whether you were capable of pulling it off.
Move too slowly and there’s no output. The process becomes consumed by inertia and either suffers from paralysis or moves at a pace that’s so slow it all but ensures the endeavor is killed before it ever yields meaningful output.
Uncertainty as Creative Fuel
A similar thing happens with the creative process. Those who are doggedly attached to the idea they began with may well execute on that idea. And do it well and fast. But along the way, they often miss so many unanticipated possibilities, options, alternatives, and paths that would’ve taken them away from that linear focus on executing on the vision, and sent them back into a place of creative dissidence and uncertainty, but also very likely yielded something orders of magnitude better.
All creators need to be able to live in the shade of the big questions long enough for truly revolutionary ideas and insights to emerge. They need to stay and act in that place relentlessly through the first, most obvious wave of ideas. Through the second, moving-toward-brutal phase. And then into the revelation phase. But most don
Why do people move along the Uncertainty Curve either too slowly or too quickly, killing the project or generating subpar outcomes? Part of the answer may lie in practicalities: team dynamics/dysfunctions or flawed design execution. But a much bigger part of the puzzle lies in what happens in a creator’s brain during the process of creation.
Most people are strongly wired to be intolerant of uncertainty. We experience it as pain, fear, anxiety, and doubt. The primal fear center in the brain, the amygdala, lights up, sending chemicals coursing through our bodies that make us physically uneasy, emotionally uncomfortable, and, in short order, spent.
We know the quest to create something from nothing requires us to go to that place. But we’re so poorly equipped to handle it, we begin to make decisions based not on what’s best for the endeavor, but on what will get us out of that painful place of uncertainty the fastest. For some, that means backing down, becoming stalled or paralyzed. For others, it means rushing to just get it over with. Either way, the end result is either nothing or something far below your true potential.
So how can we live in the shade of uncertainty long enough to birth genius? Three thoughts:
One, simply understanding the psychology of the process allows you to be more mindful of the speed at which you move from freedom to constraint.
Two, when you reframe uncertainty as possibility, the above question changes. Nothing truly innovative, nothing that has advanced art, business, design, or humanity, was ever created in the face of genuine certainty or perfect information. Because the only way to be certain before you begin is if the thing you seek to do has already been done. In which case, you’re no longer creating, you’re replicating.
Three, there is no universal formula that tells you how quickly to move along the uncertainty curve. It will differ from project to project and be strongly influenced by your unique resources and constraints, both internal and external. What’s more important is that you clearly define those resources and constraints, cultivate the mind-set, workflow, environment, and lifestyle needed to fuel action, then act. And elevate learning as a core metric. The enemy of creation is not uncertainty, it’s inertia.
Making Purposeful Bets in a Random World
Success, it turns out, has far less to do with figuring out exactly what the right next move is and far more to do with serendipity and randomness. Hard, consistent work brings you glory, since you know exactly what you have to do—you just have to do it better than everyone else, often after having put more than ten thousand hours or so of hard work behind it.
This all suggests that success is far more random and serendipitous than most of us would like to acknowledge. So a question immediately follows: Given that, what should you do about it?
Place Many Bets
If it is difficult to predict just what exactly is going to be successful, it follows that you have to keep trying. The more times you try, the more likely that you will create successful designs, start-ups, or pieces of art. If we look at the most successful innovators throughout history, we find that they have all been stunningly productive. They keep trying over and over again.
In an increasingly unpredictable world, you have to leverage the statistical advantage of randomness by placing many bets.
Make the Bets Small
If you should place many bets to increase your chances of success, then it also follows that you cannot afford to do so if those bets are large.
The world is random and unpredictable, which means that it is close to impossible to outline exactly what your next best move is. But you can explore it—by doing and trying. Just make sure you don’t go all in before you’ve figured out that it works.