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):