Math Class

In most of my math classes growing up, you’d get partial credit for showing your work. This was a boon for me because I was sometimes prone to careless errors.

Giving credit for the work makes good sense in grade school math: the concepts matter more than getting the arithmetic 100% right.

Along these lines, working hard each and every day—what used to be face time in the office—can also be a way to show that you care, that you’re trying your best.

On the other hand, this can go too far.

As we get grooved into the habit of hard work, we start to measure ourselves in terms of hours spent rather than results achieved.

The hours, once a means to an end, become an end in and of themselves: look how hard I’m working (you say to yourself and others).

The problem is, this can become a negative spiral: we can slip into the bad habit of being less disciplined with how we spend our time, lose sight of the difference between urgent and important tasks, and (ironically, despite all the time we’re spending working) give short shrift to the best things we have to offer.

Letting your work stand there, to speak for itself, is an act of bravery.

Ease and Effort

I just completed my 30-day yoga commitment, and while the physical experience has been front and center, there’s a lot more going on that I’m trying to notice.

I’ve particularly appreciated what I’ve heard about ease and effort from Rolf Gates, a wonderful yoga instructor, substance abuse counselor, ex-Army Ranger, and author. I first met Rolf 20 years ago and he’s still one of my favorite teachers (bonus: he’s now giving excellent live online yoga and meditation classes).

In yoga, and in life, our intention is to be in flow, which Rolf describes as “maximum effort without an ounce of unnecessary effort.”

“Maximum effort, without an ounce of unnecessary effort” requires us to maintain focus, calm and discipline even while engaged in something strenuous. Which is to say: the thing we are doing might be strenuous, but that does not mean that we need to experience strain while doing that thing.

I encourage you to contemplate this profound idea while doing something physically challenging–a yoga pose, a sprint, lifting weights, even just holding your breath for 30 seconds–to see what you discover.

This is another way of describing the integration of ease and effort that is at the heart of yoga. Rolf does a lovely job explaining this in a class I took with him last week:

In life we tend to like the ease of life and we don’t really prefer the effort.

And what we’re taught in our practice is that we need both ease and effort to keep growing.

But we want to organize our life around what we like (and we want that) and what we don’t like (and we don’t want that).

We struggle in this battle, this inner battle: ease good, effort bad.

And what our practice is telling us is that the two things are really the one thing, that we don’t have growth without both.

Needless to say, this is not just about yoga. The yoga poses are simply a chance to explore this idea.

For example, every time I get into an elevator (ah, the good ol’ days) and hear someone say “only 2 more days until Friday,” I’m hearing “ease good, effort bad.”

Of course, work can be hard, and weekends can be wonderful. We need a healthy dose of both to have a balanced life.

But balance doesn’t come just from the right proportion of work and rest. It also comes in a more profound way from our experience of work and rest.

The mindset “ease good, effort bad” is not neutral, not at all. That mindset is not a reflection of our lived experience, it profoundly shapes our lived experience.

If there’s one thing most of us non-essential workers are living during this pandemic, it’s the blending together of “work time” and “free time.” For those of us with families at home, this blending is making it harder to be productive in a traditional sense. For those without families at home, creating boundaries around work can be especially difficult, since our office is just a few feet away. In both cases the division between work and rest has blurred.

This, then, is a golden opportunity to observe our mental model of the duality, “ease good, effort bad.” It is a golden opportunity to explore finding the ease within the effort, and the effort within the ease.

What we find there is at the heart of a much more sustainable long-term strategy for all of us.

Running for the Train

As everyone in my family knows, I have a persistent, daily, absurd issue with running for the train.

Each morning, to get to work, I walk a half mile from my house to the train station. At a relaxed pace, that walk takes 12 to 14. Walking briskly, you can do it in 10-12 minutes. Most mornings I do it in 8-9 minutes, and when things get bad, I sprint to the train in 6 minutes.

Mind you, this is all while fully dressed for work. And it’s not because I’ve overslept: I wake up at least 75 minutes before the train, and often I’ve been up for as much as two and a half hours (to exercise).

But here we are in January, and, like any period after a proper vacation, I find that on the first day back I  leave the house “early” and stroll casually to the train. While walking, I inevitably remark to myself how enjoyable this is, not just because I’m not huffing and puffing but also because I’m not starting my day with stress and rush.

Yet, most of the time, by Friday of that first week I’m back to rushing.

There’s a quality that all our days acquire when we get pulled back into the thick of things. For me, that quality is “rushed.” You will have, I suspect, a different default vice than I do.

Of course, it’s obvious that my vice isn’t serving me in a productive way.

Though, strictly speaking, that’s not true—since I engage in this behavior day in and day out, it has to be serving some need. This need seems to be the belief in the importance of the few extra things I do before dashing out of the house, or maybe there’s a bigger story I’m telling myself about how cramming activity into every last minute will sum up to a more productive day or week.

And yet, just imagine if they changed the schedule and moved the train five minutes earlier. I’d adjust, instantly.

While I continue to ponder my own foibles, here’s a question for you: what qualities do you let creep in to your days that don’t serve you—things that cause stress or worry or simply the theater of busyness? What trade-offs are you making that you could let go of? What things about how “busy” feels might be open to questioning? What mindset shift would make that sort of change easy and lasting?

What would be your equivalent of “if they changed the train schedule…”?

Here’s to a great start to your near year and new decade.

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.