I, like many of you, have spent the last 18 months working mostly from home.
In that time, I’ve experienced the challenges of more childcare, more meals to prepare, more tugs on my attention. I’ve also relished ditching my commute and the less glamorous parts of business travel, and have treasured having more time with my family.
For all the pushes and pulls, it certainly feels like, on balance, I’ve got more hours in the day to deploy.
The question is, how best to deploy them?
Do we run extra hot, finding even more time to work longer and harder?
Do we discover that we can run cold: in the absence of time wasted in planes, trains, and automobiles, can we get all that we need to get done in fewer total hours, resulting in shorter workdays.
Or is there a “just right” solution in which we spread our work our in discrete chunks across the 16+ hours we are awake?
The “just right” solution can be magical, but it also carries its own risks.
Sometimes, “just right” feels amazing: a few hours here, thirty minutes there, interspersed around a walk or cooking or driving kids around or time with friends and family. You can’t ask for more than that.
However, I’ve also noticed some important pitfalls of “just right.” For me, the whole thing falls apart when my “off” switch is faulty: rather than freedom with my time, I get stuck in a no-man’s-land of “always on a little bit.”
Here are some of my own leading indicators that I’m getting stuck in the wrong kind of “just right:”
Picking up my phone during every blank space (and realizing that I don’t know what I’m looking for)
Being confused, and a little anxious, when 30 free minutes present themselves
Facing the endless chatter of my monkey mind (note: that’s a great little video) during my down time
Trying to go to sleep but instead lying there having both sides of unfinished conversations from my day
Freedom and flexibility are beautiful things, but they require us to get really good at fully flipping our “on” and “off” switches: being hyper-focused when we are “on” (that means: no distractions or fake-work behaviors); and fully turning off the switch when it is time to stop.
I particularly appreciate both the list of the 20 traits and the practical interview questions for each trait. As interviewers, we often do a poor job of assessing whether a person is right for a job (and whether the company is right for that person). This is because most of us interview infrequently, so we give little thought about how to do it well or we’ve gotten comfortable doing it the way we always have and stick with what’s familiar.
The reality is that there are few things more costly—in terms of money, time and culture—than bad hires, so it’s worth investing the time to try new ways to interview.
But wait…there’s more.
If you squint, you’ll see the other side of the coin: this list is also a helpful guide for what makes a great team member.
Here are the 20 traits of great hires / team members. They:
Embrace change and exhibit adaptability
Can get their team to open up (remotely)
Care about empathy
Tell true tales of failure — not humble brags
Keep DEI top of mind
Sell the team, not themselves
Look for ways to improve processes and reduce administrative burdens
Challenge the defaults
Can iterate and introduce change
Focus on outcomes, not (just) shipping
Will help you avoid bureaucracy
Apply a long-term lens
Are fueled by curiosity
Are clear on the things they don’t want to do.
Can point to a pattern of taking initiative
Show a need for speed
Are good at spotting superpowers
Demonstrate a knack for finding the 10X — not 10% — improvements
Can tell you what you should be looking for.
As I spent time with these 20 traits, I found myself bucketing them into five categories:
The more people I’ve gotten to reconnect with this summer—our respite, in the US, between wave after horrible COVID-19 wave—the more I’ve seen a pattern.
Each of us, no matter our circumstance, background, and personal situation, has found our resilience shaken. Our reserves are low. At some point in the past 18 months, we’ve gotten cut too close to the bone.
We carry the accumulated toll of month after month of fear, uncertainty, new responsibilities and isolation.
And while we had a brief window when it felt like the worst was behind us, now we’re entering yet another season with a rising caseload and rising uncertainty; the prospect of putting COVID-19 behind us might be replaced with the prospect that this is the new world we all live in.
Most of this change in us is invisible. From the outside, we look OK. But when we dig a bit deeper and ask more questions, we can see the cracks in the foundation, a shift in our emotional structural underpinning that places us on less stable ground.
I, for one, don’t have a quick answer for how to address this in ourselves. Surely part of the answer is to go easy on ourselves, make time in our days to be in nature, to quiet our minds, to put down our devices and to break a good sweat.
I would also suggest that we can help one another by remembering that no one will come out of this unscathed: while we may emerge stronger in the end, we have some deep valleys to get through from here to there.
Since we don’t need a special occasion to do so, let’s choose to act towards each other with more forgiveness, kindness and generosity of spirit.
Let’s commit to being more open-hearted with each other.
Let’s commit, starting today, to ask each other real questions, and to stay fully present for the answers.
Most of the time, and especially now, accompaniment is the greatest gift we can give to one another.
Having as few meetings as possible and making them as short as they need to be.
An overall feeling and attitude of moving fast and keeping an eye on the clock.
I’ve been in an overdrive version of this mode for the past few months, with an intensive focus on external sales and fundraising.
Then the other day, working on an important document, I had what I thought was a brilliant idea.
I started on it, made a terrible first draft, played around with the document, trying to make it resemble the original bolt of inspiration.
And then I had a paralyzing thought, “What if this is a waste of time? What if I work on this for the full two hours, give it my best shot, and then discover that it’s no good?”
And, if that’s a possibility, should I stop before I start—would that be the efficient thing to do?
Of course it would, and it would be a terrible idea.
The only way to create something truly worthwhile, something that only you can create, is if you walk along the This Might Not Work edge.
That means that you are actively aware that what you’re doing might not be good enough, that you’re dancing with that fear. You’re aware that even if it doesn’t work this time, the only way, in the long run, that you produce anything worth anything is if you consistently spend time doing things that might not work.
Which means that the point of all that efficiency is to create space that plays by a different set of rules.
It’s a space where you get to dance and make a fool of yourself and try daring things, many of which may end up in the trash, so that some of them can be amazing.
The big challenge, when we are attempting something new and difficult, is to know what to do with outside feedback:
Does what I’m hearing tell me a fundamental truth about the validity of my idea?
Do I have so much conviction in my idea that I’m sure it’s right, despite not having found a customer for what I’m selling…yet.
Our level of conviction determines how we interpret outside feedback.
For example, consider the widespread phenomenon of “kitchen blindness:” the inability to find an item of food that is sitting right in front of you – milk, OJ, the salt or, famously, butter.
While “kitchen blindness” is often be the byproduct of laziness, it’s also true that there are two ways that we look for things:
When we look without prior knowledge, we use the data that’s coming in (“I’m not finding the baking soda where it’s supposed to be”) as information to confirm or refute our hypothesis that we have baking soda.
Whereas if we are sure we bought baking soda, and we simply are not finding it in the freezer, we take that to mean that we’ve got to look in the pantry, in the shopping bags, and in the trunk of the car.
One of the hardest lines to walk as an entrepreneur or creator is the daily choice between using outside feedback to adjust / refute our hypothesis vs. sticking to our guns. (for more on learning when to quit, there’s no better book than The Dip by Seth Godin.)
Are they telling me something true that they know and I need to learn?
Or is this my “naysayers be damned” moment, and do I believe, like Steve Jobs did in 2007, that I can design and sell a smartphone that doesn’t have a keypad?
Deep down, it’s a question of conviction:
How sure am I that what I’m looking for is there?
Because if I’m really, really sure, then it really is there, and all I have to do is find it.
For years I carried around a nice, small Moleskin notebook to every meeting. I had various systems, each typically lasting about a year, to distinguish between note-taking content and next steps.
My notebook was a sacred object which, if lost, set my productivity back by weeks or more. That said, the constant iterating on how to manage the space and my to do list, the inability to search for anything, and my crummy handwriting combined for a system that I knew needed improvement.
This last year, when Zoom meetings started, I stopped using my notebook almost immediately.
This wasn’t a conscious choice: it had more to do with the physical setup of my desk and where I was sitting around my house. For a while I wasn’t taking notes, and I used other systems to track to do’s. It felt like things were working well enough, though I was nervous about what was falling through the cracks.
Then, in March when I really ramped up my external sales and fundraising, I started taking notes in Notion.
Notion is a very powerful tool, and I use about 1% of its functionality (probably less). For me, it’s just Google Docs on steroids, but it’s so fabulous at what I’m using it for that I would miss it terribly if I couldn’t use it.
I like it much much more than Google Docs because:
The interface is slicker, particularly the keystrokes (e.g. I type ‘/to do’ and a to do list appears; I type a dash and hit ‘tab’ and I’m making a bulleted list).
I find file storage in Google Docs disorienting: it always feels like a jumble of searchable docs, instead of “here’s everything all in one place.” With Notion, I click on one URL and all my meeting notes are there, easily organized, and well-structured.
Google tracking all my keystrokes and suggesting what I type next wigs me out.
I create one Notion page per meeting, with clear follow-ups, organized in a super-simple week-to-week structure. It looks like this.
This has transformed my work in two ways.
The more obvious point is that it’s so clean and organized. Everything is in one place, I know exactly where to find it, and the to-do’s are so black and white (and so fun to check off) that it makes staying on top of everything a breeze. Plus, because of the simple interface, I find myself using it consistently. At the end of a day with 8+ external meetings, I cannot remember what I promised anyone in the first half of the day…thankfully it’s all there in Notion.
The more subtle point is that taking notes during a meeting keeps me more focused. I listen harder and stay fully dialed in, something that can be difficult with hours of external calls every day.
I like this approach so much that I wonder what I’m going to do when in-person meetings come back, since I don’t think banging away on my keyboard with someone right in front of me is going to work.
Until then, I’m totally devoted to Notion, and I think you might like it too.
I play a lot of racquet sports, more so in the last year thanks to COVID-19. Not just squash, which was off limits for about 6 months, but tennis, platform tennis and, most recently, pickleball (which is becoming hugely popular because it’s so easy to learn).
In my forever quest for improvement, I pay a lot of attention to my technique. I even got an inexpensive tripod recently and took some videos of my squash matches…and quickly had an existential crisis when I saw that my strokes don’t look like the pros’. So I fussed a bunch over my backswing, my follow-through, the position of my racquet.
Then I discovered that all those things I’d been worrying about pale in comparison to how I move around the court: when I consistently focus on just one thing – getting to the right spot with enough time to hit the ball – I play my best squash.
It’s not surprising. After 25 years of playing, I know the strokes well enough. I just need to put myself in a position to consistently do what I know how to do.
In the rest of our lives, “in position” isn’t about footwork, but the same principle applies about setting ourselves up to do our best work.
We do this by being grounded, calm, and focused on the person in front of us.
By centering ourselves with an intention of connection and generosity.
By taking a moment before we start to remind ourselves what we’re passionate about.
By letting go of the voices in our heads shouting about our impending failure before we’ve even begun.
And by, each day, allowing ourselves to be well-rested and centered, by taking care of our physical and emotional well-being outside of work so we can be our best selves at work and at home.
Sure, our skills can improve.
But most of the time what will help the most is setting ourselves up, consistently, to do the great work we already know how to do.
You would introduce two people by email, and then find yourself on a 20-message back-and-forth as they worked to schedule their meeting. Then we all collectively learned how to do this: you have introduced Janet to Kareem, and Janet replies, “Thanks so much for the introduction Sasha. Moving you to bcc:”
Janet and Kareem can then get on with their (hopefully useful to both of them) conversation.
Two things are going on here:
There is standard, expected language for how to handle this sort of introduction.
It is culturally acceptable to bcc: someone in this situation, a shift from “is it rude to drop this person from the thread?” to “it would be rude to include this person on all the follow-up emails.”
While Zoom has been a lifesaver during this pandemic, we’re still in the early days of learning how to navigate it: sound, connectivity, breakout groups, who speaks when and how, backgrounds, etc…
Our Zoom cultural norms are in their infancy.
I propose we create the Zoom bcc.
It’s for situations in which it’s clear that a meeting has too many people. Two or three people are having the entire conversation, and everyone else is just listening in.
Right now, no one knows how to handle this.
The people listening in end up choosing between:
Staying focused and really listening (rare); or
Doing some other simultaneous activity while pretending to be present in the meeting.
These are both bad options. Most people struggle to stay focused in an hour-long Zoom meeting if they don’t need to be there. They end up multi-tasking, an ineffective use of their time and a distraction to everyone else.
Instead, it could become culturally acceptable to drop a short note into the chat that reads,
“Glad you guys are having a great conversation. I’m looking forward to hearing the update, and I’m going to drop off now.”
The people who need to talk get to talk, the people who are less active have a choice about how to manage the situation: stay, and be fully present; or leave in a way that is understood to be both appropriate and professional.
Jerry Seinfeld described the two personas we need to inhabit to be good writers.
The key to writing, to being a good writer, is to treat yourself like a baby, [to be] nurturing and loving, and then switch over to Lou Gossett in Officer and a Gentleman. and just be a harsh [expletive], a ball-busting son of a…When you’re writing, you want to treat your brain like a toddler. It’s just all nurturing and loving and supportiveness. And then when you look at it the next day, you want to be just a hard-ass. And you switch back and forth.
I love it: a gentle nurturer, treating my brain like a toddler, and then a hard-assed drill sergeant who is relentlessly reviewing, looking critically and, most important, cutting.
Most of the time, our writing has too many words. These extra words are a place to hide, an excuse for 80%-there thinking that’s directionally correct but still fuzzy.
The false safety of extra words and high-falutin language is how we avoid laying our ideas bare.
When we cut, our ideas stand naked and exposed to the world. They can be seen clearly, unadorned. The unadorned is bare, but it is also beautiful.
It’s an act of courage to cut away all the unnecessary bits, to stop burying our best thinking in extra blather.
We cut, we cut, we add a bit, and then we cut some more.
On and on until one of two things happens: either we learn that this idea isn’t good enough, or we discover the distilled essence of what we want to say.
Cutting is an act of confidence and bravery. When in doubt, cut.