Choose Life

George Monbiot offers some excellent career advice in an essay called “Choose Life”. Many of the examples pertain to journalism, but I think it has a lot to offer for any one searching for a direction in life (or work)…

George Monbiot offers some excellent career advice in an essay called “Choose Life”. Many of the examples pertain to journalism, but I think it has a lot to offer for any one searching for a direction in life (or work) :

The first advice I would offer is this: be wary of following the careers advice your college gives you. In journalism school, for example, students are routinely instructed that, though they may wish to write about development issues in Latin America, in order to achieve the necessary qualifications and experience they must first spend at least three years working for a local newspaper, before seeking work for a national newspaper, before attempting to find a niche which brings them somewhere near the field they want to enter.

What the corporate or institutional world wants you to do is the complete opposite of what you want to do. It wants a reliable tool, someone who can think, but not for herself: who can think instead for the institution. You can do what you believe only if that belief happens to coincide with the aims of the corporation, not just once, but consistently, across the years…

This career path, in other words, is counter-educational. It teaches you to do what you don’t want to do, to be what you don’t want to be. It is an exceptional person who emerges from this process with her aims and ideals intact. Indeed it is an exceptional person who emerges from this process at all.

This is not to say that there are no opportunities to follow your beliefs within the institutional world. There are a few, though generally out of the mainstream: specialist programmes and magazines, some sections of particular newspapers, small production companies whose bosses have retained their standards. Jobs in places like this are rare, but if you find one, pursue it with energy and persistance.

Nor does this mean that you shouldn’t take “work experience” in the institutions whose worldview you do not accept if it’s available, and where there are essential skills you feel you can learn at their expense. But you must retain absolute clarity about the limits of this exercise, and you must leave the moment you’ve learnt what you need to learn (usually after just a few months) and the firm starts taking more from you than you are taking from it.

… my second piece of career advice echoes the political advice offered by Benjamin Franklin: whenever you are faced with a choice between liberty and security, choose liberty. Otherwise you will end up with neither. People who sell their souls for the promise of a secure job and a secure salary are spat out as soon as they become dispensable.

Work hard, but don’t rush. Build up your reputation slowly and steadily. And specialisation, for all they tell you at journalism school, is, if you use it intelligently, not the trap but the key to escaping from the trap. You can become the person editors think of when they need someone to cover a particular issue from a particular angle (that is to say, your angle). They then respond to your worldview, rather than you having to respond to theirs. It’s surprising how quickly you can become an “expert” in a particular field: simply because so few other journalists will know anything about it. You will find opportunities, and opportunities will find you.

… if the market for the kind of work you want to do looks, at first, impenetrable, then engage in the issue by different means. If you want to write about homelessness, for example (one of the great undercovered issues of developed societies), it might be easier to find work with a group trying to assist the homeless. Learn the trade by learning the issues, and gradually branch into journalism. Though this takes you a step or two away from your ideal, at least you will be working with the people experiencing the issues which interest you, rather than with the detached men and women in the corporate newsrooms who have themselves lost their dreams…

… when faced with the choice between engaging with reality or engaging with what Erich Fromm calls the “necrophiliac” world of wealth and power, choose life, whatever the apparent costs may be. Your peers might at first look down on you: poor Nina, she’s twenty-six and she still doesn’t own a car. But those who have put wealth and power above life are living in the world of death, in which the living put their tombstones – their framed certificates signifying acceptance to that world – upon their walls.

You know you have only one life. You know it is a precious, extraordinary, unrepeatable thing: the product of billions of years of serendipity and evolution. So why waste it by handing it over to the living dead?

Amen to that !

The XBox Story

Some weeks ago, I bought a book that goes by the name of “Love is the Killer App”. It was written by Tim Sanders – a bigwig at Yahoo! – and the title, of course, intrigued me. As I started reading the book, I also looked up Sanders on the Internet and found that he has an egroup (on Yahoo!) which sends out periodic updates on the subject his book covers. The email update I got today, contains a very interesting story that I wanted to share with you. I am reproducing it here in entirety.

Some weeks ago, I bought a book that goes by the name of “Love is the Killer App”. It was written by Tim Sanders – a bigwig at Yahoo! – and the title intrigued me, to say the least. As I started reading the book, I also looked up Sanders on the Internet and found that he has an eGroup (on Yahoo!, of course) which sends out periodic updates on the subject his book covers.

The email update I got today, contains a very interesting story that I wanted to share with you. I am reproducing it here in entirety. In the spirit of Sander’s philosophy of sharing, I don’t think he’ll mind :

Many of you joined this newsletter group after hearing me speak at a conference or company meeting. Many of you have heard the X Box stor before, yet many on this list have not. Sometimes a story comes along in your life that cannot wait for the pages of my next book. This is one of them. Please forward this story to anyone you know that needs to hear it.

In my book I advocate that managers and supervisors take time to tell their people why they admire them and how they feel about them. I think it is cruel that we tell everybody they are mediocre these days. It is a function of a weak economy and rising layoffs.

In a radio interview earlier this year in Seattle, I talked about how some people were managing their people over email and instant messenger, never seeing them face-to-face. After the show, I received an email from a young manager named Steve at a software company who admitted he had not seen his reports face to face in over six months. This was unusual because they worked in the same building, on the same floor.

In his email, he told me that he would personally visit all six of his people and tell them one great thing about their work. A month later I received an email from him with the subject line “X Box story”. Like he promised, Steve went to all six of his people and told them why he appreciated them and one thing they do wonderfully. One of his software engineers, Lenny, came in the next day and presented him with a badly wrapped (but well intended) gift: an X Box gaming console.

Steve wondered how Lenny could afford such an extravagant gift, given his pay cuts over the last year. He asked Lenny, “where did you get the money for such a great gift?”

Lenny looked him straight in the eye and said “I sold my nine millimeter pistol boss.”

This got the attention and focus of Steve, I bet it would get your attention too!

Lenny continued, “You never asked, so I never told you. I moved here from Denver last year after my mom died. She was my best and only friend. I never made friends here, either at work or in my apartment building. After three months I got totally depressed. I went to a pawnshop and bought a beautiful chrome plated pistol and a handful of bullets. I started a routine every night after work of eating a bowl of ramen, listening to Nirvana and getting the gun out. It took almost a month to get the courage to put the bullets in the gun. It took another couple of months to get used to the feeling of the barrel of the gun on the top of my teeth. For the last few weeks I was putting ever so slight pressure on the trigger and I was getting so close Steve, so close. Then last week you freaked me out. You came into my cubicle, put your arm around me and told me you appreciated me because I turn in all of my projects early and that helps you sleep at night. Remember? You also said that I have a great sense of humor over email and that you are glad I came into your life. That night I went home and ate ramen and listened to Nirvana and when I got the gun out it scared me silly for the first time. All I could think about was what you said, that you were glad I came into your life. The next day I went back to the pawnshop and sold the gun. I remembered that you wanted the X Box game worse than anything, but with a new baby at home you could not afford it. So, for my life, you get this game. Thanks boss.”

Sometimes people just need people. They need encouragement. You have no idea how lonely and sad some people might be. Love them everywhere, not just at home but at work or wherever you find them. Love is the killer app, never forget it.

I don’t think I can add any thing to that, so I’ll just leave it at that.

Slow Dance

Working in a project-based environment is an inevitable fact of my life. And, ever so often, there are days when I start out with a 20-point to-do list, but “urgent” things keep coming up and not one of those 20 items gets done ! HBS Working Knowledge offers a solution…

[ via Emergic ]

Working in a project-based environment is an inevitable fact of my life. And, ever so often, there are days when I start out with a 20-point to-do list, but “urgent” things keep coming up and not one of those 20 items gets done !

HBS Working Knowledge offers a solution…

First Things First defines the four quadrants in such a matrix as:

1. Urgent and important tasks (Quadrant I). For example, dealing with a product recall or completing due diligence before an acquisition can be approved.

2. Not urgent but important tasks (Quadrant II). Examples here include developing key business relationships and drafting a plan for how your company will respond to the changes you foresee taking place in your industry 18 months down the road.

3. Urgent but not important tasks (Quadrant III). Examples of these tasks are taking impromptu phone calls from sales reps or fielding a request from a subordinate to help make arrangements for next week’s unit party.

4. Not urgent and not important tasks (Quadrant IV). For instance, surfing the Internet or gossiping around the water cooler.

The more time you devote to important but not urgent work, the more control you have over your schedule. In particular, the less likely it is that your time will be consumed by putting out fires. This comes as no big surprise. So why is it, then, that people have so much difficulty reducing the time they spend on urgent but unimportant tasks? Stephan Rechtschaffen, author of Timeshifting (Broadway Books, 1996), believes the answer has to do with a process known as entrainment, in which a person becomes almost psychologically addicted to the rhythm of the particular task he’s performing.

When you get to tasks that are not urgent and not important, something really interesting happens,” Rechtschaffen observes. “The ambient rhythm in modern life is so fast that even in our leisure time, instead of relaxing, we tend to take on activities that keep us in this fast rhythm.” Thus, typical Quadrant IV recreational activities tend to be things like watching television (with its fast cuts and high-energy commercials) or playing video games (in which the action moves very rapidly).

“Once you’re in a rhythm, the tendency is to stay in synchronization with that rhythm,” says Rechtschaffen. The result is that “in modern life, Quadrant I, III, and IV activities are all happening at high frequencies. Even though the way to reduce the number of Quadrant I crises in your life is to spend more time in Quadrant II, people resist going there because its rhythm is so different.”

To be able to concentrate on work that is important but not urgent, you have to learn how to gear down.

This is so true. My own life is testimony to it. I must remember to gear down.

P.S. Reminds me of Slow Dance :: You’d better slow down. Don’t dance so fast… Time is short. The music won’t last.

Unusual Regret Letter

An email from Vijai pointed me to an interesting Regret Letter… Wish we could send off letters like this !

[ via Vijai C. ]

An email from Vijai pointed me to an interesting Regret Letter :

Dear ……,

Thank you for your letter rejecting my application for employment with your firm.

I have received rejections from an unusually large number of exceptionally well qualified organizations. With such a varied and promising spectrum of rejections from which to select, it is impossible for me to consider them all. After careful deliberation, then, and because a number of firms have found me more unsuitable, I regret to inform you that I am unable to accept your rejection.

Despite your company’s outstanding qualifications and previous experience in rejecting applicants, I find that your rejection does not meet with my requirements at this time. As a result, I will be starting employment with your firm on the first of the month.

Circumstances change and one can never know when new demands for rejection arise. Accordingly, I will keep your letter on file in case my requirements for rejection change.

Please do not regard this letter as a criticism of your qualifications in attempting to refuse me employment. I wish you the best of luck in rejecting future candidates.

Sincerely,

John Kador

Wish we could send off letters like this !

For Better or Worse

Starting a business with a partner (or partners) is very different than starting one alone. The closest analogy I can come up with is that it’s like marrying someone, and the business you build is your child… Having run my own business for over one and half years with a college friend as a partner, I completely agree with the above. At the end of the day, its about matching idealogies and merging interests, and working towards a common goal. And in spite of that, the “marriage” may not last as long as you’d expect it to.

[ via Rajesh Jain ]

I am a big supporter of Entrepreneurship and was happy to come across a well-written piece on Going into business with a partner, thanks to a post on the Emergic blog :

Starting a business with a partner (or partners) is very different than starting one alone. The closest analogy I can come up with is that it’s like marrying someone, and the business you build is your child. Now you’d never marry someone simply because they possess different skills than you do (she likes to cook, and I don’t mind cleaning up, so I guess we’re a match!). You marry someone who shares similar values and who shares similar goals. Choosing a business partner is a decision that should be undertaken with the gravity of any long-term commitment.

If you like to spend a lot of money and your partner doesn’t, you’re going to clash. If you want to grow the business and she wants to keep a small team, you’ll fight. Your partner may want to do something you consider morally questionable, how will you resolve it? Add to the partnership the questions of equity and authority, never mind cash flow and the actual work you have to do for clients, and pretty quickly you can find yourself in one heck of a mess. The more work you can do upfront before starting the business to ensure you and your partner(s) are a good match, the greater the likelihood of success. Spend a lot of time talking about your hopes and dreams for the company, and discuss what you’ll do when you don’t agree about something, and how you’d handle things if the money ran out.

Having run my own business for over one and half years with a college friend as a partner, I completely agree with the above. At the end of the day, its about matching idealogies and merging interests, and working towards a common goal. And in spite of that, the “marriage” may not last as long as you’d expect it to.

Some times, the individual paths start diverging after a while (as it happened with us). When that happens, it’s important that every one involved gets fair value for the efforts invested. As long as you don’t lose sight of that, you’re alright.

One more thing : Many of us want to go into business because they simply don’t like the idea of “working for someone”. I think taking that approach is a big mistake. In your own setup, you’re working for the “client”. And I can tell you this : The client is far more demanding than an employer can ever be. So if you’re thinking of taking the plunge, at least don’t do it for the wrong reasons.

Camelot

CNet.com carried a piece called “Gwyneth, the Grateful Dead and Google” which described some unusual aspects of Google’s work culture. Fortune also profiled SAS as one of the best places to work for. Read on, but only if you want to risk re-thinking your idea of Camelot.

CNet.com carried a piece called “Gwyneth, the Grateful Dead and Google” which described some unusual aspects of Google’s work culture :

Google, though, is living like the meltdown never happened. Revenue could hit a billion dollars this year, according to some estimates, and the company has quickly established itself as a worldwide cultural phenomenon…To get around, several employees ride Segway scooters or Green Machines, a 21st century version of the Big Wheel designed for 11-year-olds. Pilates exercise balls and bowls of M&M’s are scattered about. The lobby entrance is decorated with a few hundred lava lamps. “This is like day care,” one employee spouse who took the tour said. As for health benefits, on-site dentistry and on-site physicians are available. Employees on parental leave get 75 percent of their salary and, for the first two weeks after the baby is born, $50 a day to spend at Waiters on Wheels.

On a related note, Fortune also profiled SAS as one of the best places to work for. According to an SAS press release :

SAS, the world’s largest privately held software company, once again holds a spot on FORTUNE magazine’s annual list of the 100 Best Companies to Work For. SAS ranks No. 19 this year; the company has placed among the top 20 companies all six years the list has been published.

As this presentation will show, SAS works on the philosophy that “Workplace should be fun and all people should be treated with dignity and respect.” What a wonderful (and uncommon) concept, don’t you agree?!

As a result of this approach, employees at SAS enjoy some enviable benefits : 22.5 tons of M&Ms and a 7500 sq. ft. medical facility, being just two. An on-site day care center allows employees with kids to have lunch with their children. The campus also boasts of an ultra-modern gym, on-site dry cleaning and car wash, and multi-cuisine cafeterias.

And it doesn’t hurt business either. Revenues were $1.13 billion (as in 2001), and for the company’s mainstay – software licences and upgrades – License renewal rate is 98%! SAS’s sales force does not receive commission, as “money is not a good motivator”. Instead, the firm believes in giving people interesting work to do, and treating them like responsible adults. It must work, because estimated savings of SAS in turnover/year itself amount to $50-$100 million.

Makes you re-think your idea of Camelot, doesn’t it?

Joys of Entrepreneurship

Knowledge@Emory carries an interesting piece on the pressures and joys of entrepreneurship, culled from the wisdom of many a risk taker… And I am reminded of Dan Bricklin’s quote once again : “As you jump from rock to slippery rock, you have to *like* the feeling.”

Knowledge@Emory carries an interesting piece on the pressures and joys of entrepreneurship, culled from the wisdom of many a risk taker :

“An entrepreneur has to like to take big risks. When I say big risks, I mean BIG risks. I’m talking about losing your own stuff. Not somebody else’s. You’re not risking getting fired; you’re risking losing everything you ever had.”

“Flexibility and an open-mind are also key factors in entrepreneurship.”

Definition of an entrepreneur: “He or she who has succeeded more often than they have failed.”

“What does a great leader do, especially an entrepreneurial leader? You hire people that are smarter than you. You don’t want to be on this big ego trip.”

Another tip: you better like what you’re doing. “Whatever business you get into, it is a way of life”. “You better pick something you like. You have to live it. I never had so little time off as when I started my own company.”

And I am reminded of Dan Bricklin’s quote once again :

“As you jump from rock to slippery rock, you have to *like* the feeling.”

Sound Business Advice

The group of judges that preside over the MIT $50K Entrepreneurship Competition picked their Top 10 Recommendations for Startups this week : Some real gems of wisdom here ; Advice that would be invaluable to all kinds of businesses (and managers), not just startups.

The group of judges that preside over the MIT $50K Entrepreneurship Competition picked their Top 10 Recommendations for Startups this week :

1. Find a customer for whom your product or service is a "must have" and who will buy again.

2. If you can avoid raising venture capital, do so. If you need venture capital, raise more than you think you need. Either way, focus on sales and conserve cash.

3. Surround yourself with good people and let them do their jobs. Don’t get caught up in control issues.

Some real gems of wisdom here ; Advice that would be invaluable to all kinds of businesses (and managers), not just startups.

Working for a Living

We were meant to work for a living…not a life. Yet, billions of us spend more than a third of each day, in places we don’t want to be, doing work we don’t want to do. Is there an escape? In June of 2002, I chanced upon an essay by email. It came into my life out of the blue, but seemed to echo every thing I wanted to say on the subject. It provided me with hope…and encouragement…giving me a clarity I wished I had had earlier in life…

We were meant to work for a living…not a life. Yet, billions of us spend more than a third of each day, in places we don’t want to be, doing work we don’t want to do.

In the name of a “fast-track corporate career” or some such thing, we spend most of our lives buried in work…the kind we don’t even enjoy…earning more money than we can spend…and still wanting more !! Many spend their whole lives chasing a dream that’s not really their own, all the while, harbouring desires to do something entirely different.

In June of 2002, I chanced upon an essay by email. It came into my life out of the blue, but seemed to echo every thing I wanted to say on the subject. It provided me with hope…and encouragement…giving me a clarity I wished I had had earlier in life. I reproduce parts of it here for your benefit…

On Work, Kent Nerburn :

I often hear people say, “I have to find myself.” What they really mean is, I have to make myself.” Life is an endlessly creative experience, and we are making ourselves every moment by every decision we make.

That is why the work you choose for yourself is so crucial to your sense of value and well-being. No matter how much you might believe that your work is nothing more than what you do to make money, your work makes you who you are, because it is where you put your time.

This happens to anyone who takes a job. Even if you hate a job and keep a distance from it, you are defining yourself in opposition to the job by resisting it. By giving the job your time, you are giving it your consciousness. And it will, in turn, fill your life with the reality that it presents.

Many people ignore this fact. They choose a profession because it seems exciting, or because they can make a lot of money, or because it has some prestige in their minds. They commit themselves to their work, but slowly find themselves feeling restless and empty. The time they have to spend on their work begins to hang heavy on their hands, and soon they feel constricted and trapped.

They join the legions of humanity who Thoreau said lead lives of quiet desperation – unfulfilled, unhappy and uncertain of what to do. Yet the lure of financial security and the fear of the unknown keep them from acting to change their lives, and their best energies are spend creating justifications for staying where they are or inventing activities outside of work that they hope will provide them with a sense of meaning. But these efforts can never be totally successful. We are what we do, and the more we do it, the more we become it. The only way out is to change our lives or to change our expectations for our lives. And if we lower our expectations we are killing our dreams, and a man without dreams is already half dead.

You must never forget that to those who hire you, your labor is a commodity. You are paid because you provide a service that is useful. If the service you provide is no longer needed, it doesn’t matter how honorable, how diligent, how committed you have been in your work. If what you can contribute is no longer needed, you are no longer needed and you will be let go. Even if you’ve committed your life to the job, you are, at heart, a part of the commercial exchange, and you are valuable only so long as you are a significant contributor to that commercial exchange. It is nothing personal; it’s just the nature of economic transaction.

I once had a professor who dreamed of being a concert pianist. Fearing the possibility of failure, he went into academics where the work was secure and the money was predictable. One day, when I was talking to him about my unhappiness in my graduate studies, he walked over and sat down at his piano. He played a beautiful glisando and then, abruptly, stopped. “Do what is in your heart,” he said. “I really only wanted to be a concert pianist. Now I spend every day wondering how good I might have been.” Don’t let this be your epitaph at the end of your working life. Find out what it is that burns in your heart and do it. Choose a vocation, not a job, and you will be at peace. Take a job instead of finding a vocation, and eventually you will find yourself saying, “I’ve only got thirteen more years to retirement,” or “I spend every day wondering how good I might have been.”

We all owe ourselves better than that.

David v Goliath

Through most of my working years, I have been associated with small- to medium-sized firms. I have tried the large-enterprise route too. And come to the realization that the two represent two very different personalities. Neither route is more right or wrong. But the probability of success with any one approach will depend strongly on the kind of person *you* are. Over the next several posts, I will try and highlight some my learnings on this subject to give you a better idea of what the two routes involve…

Through most of my working years, I have been associated with small- to medium-sized firms, believing that they would offer me a much richer experience and allow me to hone my skills in many different areas. The trade-off is, of course, the kind of exposure that a large enterprise provides, with its systems & processes and scale of operations and its ability to build “stable”, well-charted, careers.

I have tried the large-enterprise route too. And come to the realization that the two represent two very different personalities. Neither route is more right or wrong. But the probability of success with any one approach will depend strongly on the kind of person *you* are.

Entrepreneurship is not for every one. It’s a different kind of world that you get into. And it’s better to understand it somewhat, before you take the crucial step.

Dan Bricklin summed it up best when he explained the difference between the Davids and Goliaths of the working world :

In big business, when you need to cross a river, you simply design a bridge, build it, and march right across.

But in a small venture, you must climb the rocks. You don’t know where each step will take you, but you do know the general direction you are moving in. If you make a mistake, you get wet. If your calculations are wrong, you have to inch your way back to safety and find a different route.

And, as you jump from rock to slippery rock, you have to *like* the feeling.

Until the next post on this subject, read this excellent series on Entrepreneurship by Rajesh Jain to know more.