Monday, December 22, 2008

Should I be finding meaning in my work?

One of the more common gripes from otherwise successful senior businessmen (and, yes, they are men) was that they lacked meaning in work. Yes, they earned a small fortune, their children were all at expensive private schools but they lacked a sense of purpose. It gnawed away at their soul.

Well good riddance to all that says Lucy Kellaway in her article in the Financial Times. She writes, "Over the past decade, the rich, professional classes have developed an increasingly unhealthy attitude to their jobs. We took our jobs and our fat salaries for granted and felt aggrieved if our bonuses were not even bigger than the year before. We demanded that the work be interesting in itself and, even more dangerously and preposterously, that it should have meaning."

It's a valid point though not one I entirely agree with. It's quite right that those of us working salaried jobs for a living should not expect to encounter a perfect cocktail of flow / bliss / engagement / purpose - call it what you will. We have to endure hours of painful meetings before something interesting, even fun happens. But if it never happens, if indeed by design of the job it never could happen, then we have a depressing state of affairs.

If your work has no point, no meaning, nothing engaging about it, then I challenge you to do something about it.

Tough questions:

1 look back at your calendar for the last week. Notice where you were truly absorbed; look for moments when you really got things done; find the hours that you let drift by. What can you do to redesign this week and next?

2 Do you have truly SMART goals designed for each project (S = Specific M = Measurable A = Attainable R = Realistic T = Timely)? Write them down now. How do you need to change them to make them smarter?

Saturday, December 20, 2008

How do I get productive at work?

If you are interesting in working less hard and more effectively, there are spectrum of approaches advocated by self-help gurus. As someone who struggles to juggle life I have tried out many of them. I would classify them into those that work for inherently disorganized, last minute people; and those that help inherently organized people excel. Which end of the spectrum are you?

(1) If you are a natural list maker, if you get an innate sense of satisfaction from ticking things off your to do's, then you will get energised by David Allen's Getting Things Done. It requires a complete do-over of your filing and making your email @Action. This has been hovering at the top of all the various self-help best-seller lists. Unfortunately if you have a natural preference for less sturcture in your life then you will likely start out fine before watch the system gradually unravel in from of you. Instead you need short-cuts.

(2) The 4 hour work week is for you if you have seven of eight half-written to-do lists but none of them that complete. For Myers-Briggs fans, you are a 'P'. You need to develop a few simple but powerful habits otherwise you risk a life of reacting to email and getting distracted by whatever is in front of your nose.

Download a summary of how to apply this to your work life here

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Who is most likely to succeed?

"There are certain jobs where almost nothing you can learn about candidates before they start predicts how they’ll do once they’re hired." In this week's New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell argues that the process for selecting new teachers sufferes from the same flaws as picking quarterbacks in the annual NFL draft. The skills that drive success for quarterbacks in the college leagues are completely different from those required when playing with the big boys. The same is true for teaches and many other professions.

Here's the problem: we normally recruit and select on cognitive ability. Can you solve these logic problems? Please complete this verbal reasoning test. However, what differentiates the best and the worst teachers is a set of soft skills that they use to bring the classroom alive for all the individual students.

The medical profession is quickly wising up to this. Good doctors are those that can listen, communicate and empathise with their patients. It's what stops hospitals from getting sued. Medical schools are now incorporating much more training on these 'soft skills'.

Rather than use recruiting tests that don't predict success, the education community needs to learn from other professions who have figured out. They need to widen the funnel and let more potential teachers in but then have a meritocratic system that accelerates the most talented and weeds out those who fall well below average.
Questions for you:
1. Do you have a good understanding on which employee talents, strengths & behaviors predict success in your organization?
2. How well do screen for these in your recruiting process?
3. How meritocratic is your organization in accelerating the careers of your high potential recruits and weeding out those who aren't the right match?

So what should I read? Part I

If you are interested in what all the evidence-based findings are on how to live a more fulfilled and engaged life, I wanted to put them all in one place:

1. The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom – Jonathan Haidt
One of the best books you can read on what really constitutes a life of fulfillment. Haidt sifts through science & philosophy. He shows which bits the Stoics had right, where the Buddhism is spot on, why its dangerous to trust your feelings, why we desparely seek prestige and how we fail to appreciate why commuting to work makes us miserable.

2. Authentic Happiness – Martin Seligman
Seligman is a heavyweight in the world of psychology. This is the bestseller. Goes deeper into Pleasure, Engagement & Meaning. Also lots of learned optimism – training your mind to be less pessimistic.

3. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience - Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
This is the definitive work on Challenge / Engagement: who achieves peak experiences in life and how. A flow state ensues when one is engaged in self-controlled, goal-related, meaningful actions. A serious but rewarding read (it's a compelling academic book, not self-help). It’s been a classic since it was first published in 1970s

4. The Paradox of Choice – Barry Schwartz
The problems of consumer choice. Why we make bad decisions when faced with a huge array of choices. Very accessible. It will help you understand why we fail to make adequate 401K / pension plans or would prefer to walk out of a supermarket rather than decide what variety of jam to buy

5. Stumbling upon happiness – Daniel Gilbert
Why we mis-remember the part, mis-interpret the present and mis-predict the future. Very accessible tour of counterintuitive findings from Psychology & Behavioral Economics. There's less here on what you can do about all the findings but it's a fast, fun read

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Making life play to your strengths Part I

One of the more robust findings in academia (Organization Behavior, Positive Psychology etc) is to try using your strengths in a new way every day. You can broaden that to structuring your work and your life to play to your strengths. Easier said than done.

First things first you need to know what your strengths are. There are a number of ways to do this.
1. You can try brainstorming with yourself. When at work do you feel most alive? What have you gone to check the time and discovered that hours not minutes have past? When do you feel 'in the zone'? More often than not you are actively engaged in something that plays to your strengths. Sometimes it worth looking through your calendar and reviewing the last few days and weeks to help remember these moments
2. Ask those around you. Speak with friends and colleagues. Ask them for their help. When do they see you at your best? What specific times have they noticed a spring in your step? They may think of moments that you hadn't even considered. Or they may simply misjudge you.
3. Take a online assessment. There are two that I always recommmend to people
a) VIA strengths assessment: go to, login then take the VIA strengths questionnaire. Warning - it's 240 questions and rather long. That said the strengths it covers are much broader than everyday work life. It will give you about your love of beauty, your ability to forgive, your creativity, your capacity to love and be loved.... interpretting your strengths is for another posting but this is the place to begin
b) buy Strengthsfinder 2.0 by Tom Rath. It will give you a code to do their online test (not as long as VIA). This test is more focused on your talents that strengths but that's a slightly pedantic point. The link below will take you there on Amazon

Is there anything good about men?

Why was it so rare for a hundred women to get together and build a ship and sail off to explore unknown regions, whereas men have fairly regularly done such things? Well women have historically done best by minimizing risks, whereas the successful men were the ones who took chances.

You are likely descended from twice as many women as men. DNA analysis has shown throughout the entire history of the human race, maybe 80% of women but only 40% of men reproduced. Said another way, most men who ever lived did not have descendants who are alive today. Their lines were dead ends. In fact most of us are descended from a few great men much more than from other men. Remember, most of the mediocre men left no descendants at all.

Playground observation studies find that girls pair off and play one-on-one with the same playmate for the full hour. Boys will either play one-on-one with a series of different playmates or with a larger group. Girls want the one-to-one relationship, whereas boys are drawn to bigger groups or networks.
When two girls are playing together and the researchers bring in a third one, the two girls resist letting her join. But two boys will let a third boy join their game. Girls want the one-on-one connection, so adding a third person spoils the time for them, but it doesn’t spoil it for the boys.

Men and women are both social but in different ways. Women specialize in the narrow sphere of intimate relationships. Men specialize in the larger group. If you make a list of activities that are done in large groups, you are likely to have a list of things that men do and enjoy more than women: team sports, politics, large corporations, economic networks, and so forth.

Some random tidbits for you: on the Titanic, the richest men had a lower survival rate (34%) than the poorest women (46%) Most workaholics are males. Female musicians are prone NOT to improvise.

A few lucky men are at the top of society and enjoy the culture’s best rewards. Others, less fortunate, have their lives chewed up by it. Culture uses both men and women, but most cultures use them in somewhat different ways. Most cultures see individual men as more expendable than individual women, and this difference is probably based on nature, in whose reproductive competition some men are the big losers and other men are the biggest winners. Hence it uses men for the many risky jobs it has.
Men go to extremes more than women, and this fits in well with culture using them to try out lots of different things, rewarding the winners and crushing the losers.

Read professor Roy F. Baumeister's talk here (he's President of the American Psychology Association):

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Emotional buying

A friend of mine recently asked me, "is it true that 75% of our buying decisions are based on emotion? It sounds like a made up statistic". This was my response:

The quick answer is that we have two type of processes that go on in our brains when making any decision:
System 1 is when we use our intuition. This is fast, automatic, effortless and rooted in emotion. It is our gut instinct
System 2 is when we use our reasoning. This slow, controlled, effortful and rule-governed. We have to consciously so it

Most decisions, including buying decisions, involve people using a combination of System 1 and System 2. Classic Economics has flaws because is assumes we are all rational players with perfect information using System 2 only. Behavioral economics, psychology etc recognizes the importance of system 1.

There is a growing amount of research on how they interact. I think it's fair to say:

- everyone uses system 1 all the time without realizing it. e.g. most people choose their life partner on this

- different people engage system 2 (reasoning) for different decisions in different situations but generally those they consider v important. some buying decisions fall into this category, many don't

- but it's not so much a question of what % of buying decisions are based on emotion. All of them are. But they are also partly based in reasoned thinking. The real question is do we think rationally then let in our emotions to influence the decision to some extent? Or do we have a gut instinct ("I like the look of John McCain", "I love that dress") and then use all the data & reasoning to justify that initial reaction?

- there is near overwhelming evidence that the latter is true. this a robust but depressing finding. it explains why republicans and democrats so deeply believe that their view of the world is right - look out for the upcoming book by Jonathan Haidt, 'The Righteous Mind'

Women at work

What drives and sustains successful female leaders? A new study out by McKinsey argues that the women who make it to the top AND enjoy it are all doing a few things right:

1. Meaning: finding strength and putting it to work toward an inspiring purpose
2. Managing energy: knowing where your energy comes from, where it goes, and what you can do to manage it
3. Positive framing: adopting a more constructive way to view your world, expand your horizons, and gain resilience to move ahead even when bad things happen
4. Connecting: identify who can help you grow, building stronger relationships, and increasing your sense of belonging
5. Engaging: finding your voice, becoming self-reliant and confident by accepting opportunties and the inherent risks they bring, and collaborating with others

All of these are consistent with ongoing research in Positive Psychology (the scientific study of what goes right with life). Unlike other leadership frameworks, their 'Centered leadership' lends itself to practical things we can do differently today: knowing what our strengths are and deploying them to our advantage each day, learning to frame our experiences in a more constructive light, building our sense of belonging at work and in the community.... not rocket science but do-able.

Interestingly they also found, anecdotally, that senior women at McKinsey often fail to reciprocate and find doing so distasteful. This is a consistent finding. Roy Baumeister (one of America's top psychologists) also found that woman have small intimate social networks – men go shallow & broad. Indeed, studies were set up so two girls were playing together and the researchers brought in a third, the two girls resist letting her join. But two boys will let a third boy join their game.

This gets into broader gender questions which are a subject for another day

Here's the McKinsey article:

Monday, October 20, 2008

Blowing up the review process

Let's blow up the annual performance review. It's an utterly flawed process with misaligned incentives. There's a much simpler idea that leads to honest and, more importantly, helpful conversations. Or so argues Sam Culbert in today's Wall Street Journal

A funny thing happened on the way to The Forum

I am sometimes hear from friends that they are going to the Landmark Forum. They want to know about my experience when I went in 2003. Here are some quick notes:

On balance I liked it and got useful ideas that have helped me since. The lessons I took away from it were:
- being honest and having integrity is a good thing
- being open to being loved and expressing it to others is also pretty important
- knowing what holds you back is v useful
- looking for greater meaning and purpose in life is important

Things that annoyed me:
- the persistent selling and self-promotion of landmark programs
- the one size fits all approach (especially the thing about calling friends and family during the weekend and apologizing for stuff - it works for some but generally it is self-indulgent. I resisted all weekend and was glad I did)
- their belief that their way was THE only way

Things that changed as a result
- I stopped attempting to date multiple girls at once (integrity yes, but my amusing stories to mates at the pub declined)
- set me off thinking about what were scientifically proven ways to make people happier
- made me realise how much I resist someone implying I am incompetant at something - it brings out the worst in me

Now I have studied the psychology in much more depth, it is clear they are onto the right big issues with integrity, love, rackets and purpose. They mention strengths briefly(or Strong Suits) but don't equip people with the taxonomy or language to really identify them (nothing on Strengthsfinder by Gallup or VIA survey available at

With a business hat on their selling techniques are absolutely first-class and should be written up in a business scool case study. I hated them but I also admired them

I once recommended the landmark forum to a friend who was not that mentally resilient. I regretted doing so. She found the whole thing hugely emotional, overwhleming and it was too much for her.

So I am not a net promoter (given that I haven't ever recommended it to friends or colleagues). But I am glad I did it and took away relevant lessons

Tuesday, October 7, 2008


What’s wrong with a brother a sister having protected sex if no-one ever finds out? What about cooking and eating roadkill? How about drinking apple juice that’s had a sterilized cockroach dipped in it?

These are the issues of moral dumbfounding - when people feel strongly that something is wrong but cannot explain why.

Jonathan Haidt’s work describes how emotional responses occur instantaneously — we have primitive gut reactions that evolved to generate split-second decisions and enhance survival in a dangerous world. Moral judgment, on the other hand, comes later, as our conscious mind develops a plausible rationalization for the decision already arrived at through moral intuition.

Haidt uses his theory of morality to explain why Liberals and Conservatives disagree on so much and why they cannot even see how others could view a moral issue differently. He explains how Liberals use two strong moral foundations. They value the individual and fairness (or reciprocity). You are free to exercise your free-will just don’t harm anyone and don’t cheat on anyone. On the other hand while Conservatives do value these two foundations they also place value on three others: In-group loyalty, Authority and Purity. For most people in the world the unit of society is not the individual but the family or broader community.

If you want to know where you stand go on the political spectrum to There’s an article describing it from the NY Times but better is a 5mins a video from the New Yorker conference 2007. Not great production quality but good enough

By the way his book, The Happiness Hypothesis is one of the best written accounts on what really makes people happy today. An accessible and fascinating read (but not self-help).