Stretch Assignments

I may be looking at Ye Olden Days through rose colored glasses…

…but I can’t help but notice a difference in attitudes about work today compared to when I had my first jobs 25 years ago.

Back then, my colleagues and I would talk actively about whether our responsibilities would ever extend beyond making copies, sending faxes, and answering the phone. There was enough clerical work and hierarchy that “entry level” was truly menial. When a superior asked us to do anything that involved thinking, we jumped at it. Non-clerical work was a perk, and when it came our way, it was our job to find time to make it happen: do all our menial work, and do this too. These projects were a chance to demonstrate that we could do something other than stand by the fax machine, and each mini-assignment served as a testing-ground of whether we should be given another useful thing to do.

While there are countless flaws in that old system, the mindset around how to approach “stretch assignments” stands the test of time.

A great stretch assignment is a chance to do something new, challenging, and exciting. By definition it’s beyond our current levels of mastery, so it requires additional time on our part to learn and to get it right.

Often, though, I’m hearing just the opposite (including from job applicants): I can only take on that new thing if there’s a 1-for-1 trade of getting rid of this existing thing.

I don’t think it works that way, at least not in environments that are moving fast and trying to grow: the organization only grows its reach, its scale, and its revenues profits and impact, if the things that make up that organization—software, systems, processes and people—can stretch and grow.

Whether it’s a one-off project or an expansion of our role, the best way to take on stretch assignments is, literally, to stretch: our mental capacity, our willingness to be uncomfortable, the number of hours we put in to make the “stretch” possible on top of everything else that’s on our plate. That means finding time around the edges, whether early in the morning, late in the evening or on a weekend, to get that job done. Hopefully the opportunity and learning are more than worth the trade.

(Better yet, in the process of adjusting to this fuller plate, we often discover a bunch of non-essential things that we were spending time on that don’t require nearly as much polishing).

The reality is, the path to leverage in our job requires us to constantly shift, adjusting to new opportunities and new sets of responsibilities.

Learning the skill of sprinting, and getting adept at shifting and stretching time, is the way that we discover what our maximum output really is. It’s also how we discover where it is that we really shine.

How many times?

I can’t help wondering: will there ever come a day when we skip all the hemming and hawing and just get on with our important, daily work?

Will we ever, finally, manage to completely ignore all our excellent excuses:

The setting isn’t right.

I have less time than I thought.

I didn’t sleep well last night.

A very important other problem is raging through my head, unresolved.

Something aches–my head, my heel, my heart–and there’s no way I can do my best work today.

The pain of noticing how bad this paragraph seems, of how loud the “stop!” in my head seems, of how far away I feel from “the zone, is real.

That familiar mantra, “this isn’t working this time, why bother?!” is running on repeat at top volume. I could just put this off until tomorrow, couldn’t I?

On and on and on and on.

How many times until this all fades away?

I couldn’t tell you.

I’ve not gotten there yet.

But I suspect that the noise never disappears, nor is it my job to un-see it.

Instead, over time and with enough practice, while that noise remains, it becomes something that IS while I continue to DO.

The real secret is this: the IS and the DO exist on different planes. That’s why they don’t need to fight it out, because they can coexist if we just put our heads down and get on with it.

Nothing needs to be vanquished for us to do important work today.

Seth Godin and Tim Ferris: What’s Your Job?

“What I do for a living is notice things.”

That one sentence is the most remarkable statement in the wonderful two-hour conversation Seth Godin has with Tim Ferris in a recent episode of Tim’s podcast.

Seth Godin, the many-times best-selling author, entrepreneur, speaker, teacher, iconoclast, and blogger. His job, in his words, is “to notice things.”

We should all have such a distilled version of the job that we really do (at work, in our families, in our lives).

If you had to boil it all down, like Seth does (“I notice things”), what’s your job?

In addition to answering that question for yourself, you could ask each person in your company to answer, then share those answers and discuss. It would be a great conversation.

(Bonus points for three words or less, but definitely no more than 10.)

 

Lightning (Almost) Never Strikes

New York Lotto Poker Scratch OffI’m sitting outside on a beautiful, sunny, early summer day eating my lunch on a bench in New York City.

Across from me, a guy is frantically scratching off Lotto cards: he buys four, tears the perforation, stacks the cards, and, one by one, scratches them off.

He loses.

He gets up, walks back to the newsstand, buys and scratches off another four.

He loses.

He gets up a third time, buys and scratches off another four. He gets up, walks back to the stand with one of the cards, and trades it for a new one—he won a new card.

He scratches that one off.

He loses.

To watch his intensity in scratching off these cards is to see the story he’s telling himself: each time, there’s a chance (however small) that he’ll hit it big.

That is true.

What’s also true is what happens in practice: he spends money, he scratches, he loses. He spends money, he scratches, he loses.

This behavior leads to that result.

Scratching off Lotto cards is yet another form of hoping that lightning strikes us.

It also comes in the many ways we play small, keep our heads down, and hope that someone will notice us or pick us:

When we don’t invest in relationships because we’d prefer to “just do our work” and hope to be seen.

When we define our role in terms of the tasks we’ve mastered, without expanding our own orbit.

When we’re unwilling to make any tough decisions that put us on the hook.

When we give ourselves lots of emotional outs, so that we never care enough to say “I made this, I’m proud of it, I hope you are too.”

Yes, it is mathematically possible that continuing to do the old things will lead to a spectacular, positive, different outcome.

But if this behavior has, so far, led to that (disappointing) outcome over and over and over again, it might be time to take a step back and consider: how much of how I’m showing up is a form of wishing that lighting will strike one day?

TGIM

Oh good, it’s Monday.

Another chance to try my hand at that important problem we are trying to solve.

An opportunity to interact with our customers and bring a bit of joy into their lives.

A chance to see my co-workers, people I like and respect who treat me with kindness and generosity.

A day in which I will learn something, challenge myself, dance on the edge.

A day to commit to do some thing, even just one, that matters.

This isn’t what people normally think. Most of us don’t like our jobs.

On countless elevators I hear people greet each other with a knowing “it’s almost Friday” followed by a nod and a smile. Yet counting days until the temporary, illusory break of the weekend is no way to live.

It’s true, sometimes we get stuck. It’s happened to all of us: we find ourselves in the wrong place, in the wrong job, with the wrong people, and each day can be difficult.

But nowadays there are so many ways to learn something new, so many ways to connect with people who care about the same things we do, that there’s no reason to let ourselves slip into dividing our lives between the suffering of the week and the temporary respite of the weekend.

At a minimum, if you do feel stuck, don’t use your weekends just to “do nothing” because you believe you need that break before the week hits you again. Use the time that is fully yours to put a bit of energy towards something meaningful, something that brings a bit of a spark back into your day, something that’s a step towards the next thing.

Each day is your chance to do so much more than count the minutes until it’s over.

Because one day it will be, and that’s a game you don’t actually want to win.

The Easiest Money I’ve Ever Given Away

The easiest money I’ve ever given away was the day after my wallet was returned to me, untouched and full of cash.

Having done the mental work of literally imagining living without that money, it was easy to see the request to give money away as a simple reminder: “Ah, yes, this money isn’t mine after all.”

The practice of giving is just that, a practice. And like any practice, it is in the act of doing that the behavior becomes normal, expected, and part of our lives – not the other way around. The practice of giving is how we pound away at the mold of who we are. We exert effort and willpower until the very material of our selves begins to yield and take on a new shape.

Part of that reshaping manifests in a new story we tell ourselves, a story about how to think about our wealth and our skills and our possessions and the choices we can make about how to deploy all of them – maybe, just maybe – to reshape the world into the better image we dare to imagine.

Over time, we also discover that, in the act of starting to show up differently in the world, the world starts to show up differently in us. In the act of trying to shape the world in a new way, the world sneaks up on us and starts to reshape us too. If we are very lucky, both of those transformations will be for the better.

Today Acumen is celebrating its fifteen-year anniversary, and in a couple of months I will hit my 10-year anniversary at Acumen. Looking back, it’s easy be misled by the small, nearly imperceptible daily changes we have made in the world and that the world has made on us. But looked at from the vantage point of a decade, or a decade and half, it’s obvious that the changes are both profound and lasting.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in this time, it’s that the only way to become the kinds of people who show up, who hammer away and who do the work is by showing up, hammering away, and doing the work. It also helps tremendously to have people who are willing to show up alongside you, people who are willing to pour their best selves into a shared vision about what is possible.

To all the people who have been willing to show up alongside me, and to all the people who have shaped me in ways that I hope you know (but I bet you don’t know fully): thank you.

No Rush

It’s summertime. If you’re not on vacation, then you’re probably making space for some bigger, longer-term projects.

Inevitably, our work time is split into two broad categories: the busy things we need to get through efficiently, and the labor that requires our thoughtful, soulful engagement.

We routinely struggle to create the right balance between the two, which is an important fight.

We also cannot forget that the qualities that serve us well in one area serve us poorly in the other. It’s great to be focused, urgent, and keeping an eye on the clock when tearing through our inbox. But striving to be driven, focused and efficient when we are engaging in bigger questions and in harder topics that don’t yield to quick and easy answers is, with due credit to Indiana Jones, like bringing a knife to a gun fight.

There’s no “hurrying up” when we’re working through big, complex problems.

Make the time, take the time, and don’t rush it.

The work we choose not to do

Lately I’ve come to see much more clearly the myth of my calendar: the myth that there’s a pinnacle of time management that will make everything OK.

It turns out that there isn’t.

The pieces that I’m trying to fit into my day – the articles I am and am not reading; the meetings I am and am not taking; the talks I am and am not giving – are but a tiny, arbitrary swath of the everything that’s out there that I could be doing that might be relevant and useful.

It’s comforting to think that we’re constrained by all the things we’ve already signed up for, when in reality what constrains us is our unwillingness to let people down in service of our higher purpose.

This is why we can look at people who have learned Mandarin in three months, become world-class tango dancers, or completed the Ironman and say, “Sure, they can do that, but that’s because they have the freedom to spend their time that way.”

This is also why we talk about the changes we’d like to make aspirationally, even wistfully: “Someday [when I’m a perfect person] I’m going to…..” […speak up more in meetings. …start working on that long-term project without anyone’s permission. …sleep enough every night…be courageous…stand up to my boss…learn to code.]  It’s just another way of hiding, since we know that we’ll never be that perfect person.

The real issue is our unwillingness to let people down, our unwillingness to bear the brunt of the ensuing disappointment from people we like and respect in service of something more important.

One way to start a new conversation is to ask ourselves: what would make the way we’re currently behaving intolerable to us? What shift would have to happen to make the things we’d like to ‘someday’ become the things we have to do today? What would have to change so that we have no choice but to start doing the work that WE have, until now, chosen not to do?

The first person we have to be willing to break an old contract with is ourselves.

Entry Level

The biggest fear when taking an entry level job is whether you’ll end up doing meaningful work. I still remember fretting that I’d spend the summer of my first “real” internship in the U.S. Senate fetching coffee and making copies (I didn’t end up fetching coffee…the copies, yeah, there was some of that).

It can seem like the way to protect against this is to ask lots of very specific questions about the role: what exactly will my responsibilities be? What will a typical day look like? This can help you a bit, but it can also backfire, because the best places for you might be the ones where these questions don’t get the clearest answers (also, it’s tricky to ask these sorts of questions and still communicate that you understand that your job is going to be to make those around you more successful, and that you’re willing to take a “whatever it takes” attitude.)

Better, I’ve found, to focus on two things.

First, when talking to your potential supervisor, figure out if she seems genuinely to care about the people around her, and that she will devote mindshare and energy to investing in you. For example, you could ask a question like, “can you describe someone who has worked for you who has gone on to do great things?” and then focus as much on the energy she has in answering the question as on the content of what she says.

Second, and probably most helpful: try to work in a place that is dynamic and growing. If a place is dynamic and growing, that means that new and unexpected (but cool and exciting) things are going to come down the pike. And if the place is dynamic and growing, that also means that it’s probably not fully resourced to attack that next great opportunity – that’s where you’re going to come in.

In these sorts of places, you’ll hear lots of answers about the general arc of growth and the future, but you won’t hear exactly the specific thing you’ll get to work on…because people don’t know, yet.

For a fun example, check on this great rap by the Ladies of Hamilton, with the lead part (of Alexander Hamilton) played by Morgan Marcell. Morgan is new to Broadway and she’s part of the Hamilton ensemble. There’s no conversation she could have had with the show’s producers or directors that could have predicted that the Hamilton cast would put out YouTube videos that would be seen more than 300,000 times. But she joined something she believed in, she put in the work, she did enough that her peers recognized her talents, and she worked with people who were proud to shine a spotlight on her when the opportunity arose.

And when it did, she was ready to step up.

(Oh, and @Lin_Manuel, yes, I do enter the lottery every day….)

No windup

I do four kinds of exercise: play squash, run, swim, and do yoga. A more accurate portrayal is that I mostly play squash, and do the other three every so often. This week, though, because of the warmer weather, earlier sunrise, and jetlag, I’ve run four times in 8 days.

One of the things that’s beautiful about running is that there’s almost no windup and wind-down: no place to drive to, no plan to make, no excess anything on either side. In 45 minutes set aside for a run, 40 of those minutes are spent running. Get dressed, lace up your shoes, and go.

Early yesterday morning, tired and cranky, I was wondering why I had dragged myself out of bed to run two days in a row. I had finished tying my shoes and I was standing at my back door looking for some way to stall (what I would have given for a fifteen minute drive to the gym!) It felt like there was a physical barrier I had to push through to get myself up and out the door. I walked out of my house, walked onto the street, kept walking for one more block, started the music on my phone, and finally had no choice but to start jogging slowly.

Similarly, earlier this week a colleague and I found ourselves with only 35 minutes at the end of a long day in which to get some important work done. Neither of us seemed up for it and I almost suggested we not bother. We chatted and stalled for a little, and we nearly got pulled into email on our open laptops. But then we began.

In both cases – the run and the 30 minute conversation that should have taken two hours – it was easy to be fooled that I needed more windup, more buffer, more something between me and the work.

Then I get out there and reconfirm what I seem to need to relearn each and every time: that the windup is nothing more than stalling; and that the correlation between how I feel beforehand and how the work goes is nearly zero.