Career

Thinking of your career creatively (as a journey or as a canvas) can give you insights and motivation.

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Chances are you won’t have the same kind of job that your parents had. Nor the same career path. The nature of jobs and work have changed. In particular, jobs today are shorter-term, and one’s career path is open and likely to change over your lifetime. You will likely find yourself performing different kinds of activities and utilising different skill-sets and different points in your life.

This can present challenges and difficulties, but it also present opportunities. You now have the opportunity to “design your career”. What does this mean?

Well, you can take a look at the jobs you’ve done and the companies you’ve worked at, non-commercial activity you’ve been involved with (such as non-profit work, hobbies, etc), your education, and other factors, and see them as a kind of “portfolio”.

You can start to envisage your career-to-date in various creative ways. You could look at it as a journey, with each different job or project as a step in that journey, which in turn, opens the door to future steps. Or you could look at it as a canvas, where, rather than being sequentially ordered in time, it’s more like a spacious “surface”, in which the jobs or projects are like brush strokes, which each contribute to form an overall picture.

What’s the point of all this “creative thinking”? Well, when you look at the journey or colours of your career, you can get ideas of where to go next.

One principle I have brough to bear here is balance. That is, when I’ve developed my career all the way in one particular direction (let’s just call it “north”), then I try to think of ways to develop it in a different direction (let’s say “south-east”). In my personal case, I had a long history in software development in the private sector. I decided to apply some balance to my profile by seeking more work in government and by studying Interaction Design.

You can find balance in other ways. Perhaps all your work thusfar was in one particular city. You could try to work in a different city for a change. Or perhaps your work was usually long-term, multi-year projects. You could balance it out by doing a few shorter stints.

There’s no right or wrong way here, and you probably want to be selective about where you apply balance.

But by being strategic about your choices of where, how and what work you do, within the constraints of what you have control over (e.g. your employability), you can create a stronger overall portfolio and shape your career to more closely fit your real interests, passions and abilities.

For example, if you’re a film producer with 6 years of experience, you might be appealing to companies who are looking to produce promotional videos. But what if you were a film producer who had also done some work in real estate and taken a short course in marketing? Then you might be extermely appealing to a real estate company who are looking to produce videos to market their properties.

As an alternative to balance, you can also look at complementarity. Different industries can complement eachother (e.g. fashion and design) and different locations can complement eachother (e.g. Australia and China, both being in the Asia-Pacific region).

So go grab a time-machine or a paintbrush, and get designery with your career! Your work history belongs to you. It’s your property in a way. See if you can find ways to craft it to your liking.

Slow

Slowing down can actually help you speed up! How? By enabling you to focus and unlocking the foundations of your knowledge domain.

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In today’s world, there seems to be much usage of words like “rapid”, “change”, “quick”, “speed”, “fast”, “instant”, “agile”, “responsive”, etc.

I have noticed that, when the meanings of these words get mixed in with emotions and thought process of work, they can lead to a feeling of being hurried or harried, of rushing, of deadlines, of insufficient time. The word “deadline” itself seems kind of scary, carrying the connotation of “dead”!

Because we feel that there isn’t enough time, often quite rightly, we are forced to go fast and rush. That in turn can lead to a feeling of pressure. That we’re trying to work quickly, but there isn’t enough time, so we are stretched or pressured.

However, I have found that when I am actually going fast – delivering lots of work rapidly and on-time, I don’t feel hurried or harried at all. In fact, I feel quite calm, relaxed and that there’s time, and I don’t feel too pressured or stretched.

So what does it really mean to be rapid, agile, responsive, fast?

Firstly, I have found that when you put pressure on yourself, you arc up, your body becomes stiff, your breathing becomes shallower. It becomes more difficult to focus, and you start to have your focus split or fragmented between a lot of different things. This loss of focus, in turn, leads to a loss of productivity and a loss of sustainable productive energy. So, while I can pump out work in a panic for a short period of time, over a longer period, it becomes unsustainable.

Secondly, I have found that the fragmentation of focus can lead to a dismantling of the ability to properly understand a problem and a problem-space. That is, because insufficient time has been spent on discovering and then solidly grasping of the foundations of a structure of knowledge, your ability to work at the higher levels of that structure becomes slow, repetitive, inefficient and tedious. You have to repetitively go through multiple iterations of the same problem before identifying the root of it, when you could have discovered the root right from the start, if you thoroughly understood the foundations of what you’re working with.

My solutions?

Firstly, rather than taking on that hurred, pressured mind-set and body language, I have found it generally better, at almost any cost, to relax and take on a cooler disposition and demeanor.

Secondly, I try to reduce the number of elements that I focus on at any one time. For example, instead of trying to deliver an entire three page report all at once, I focus on just writing one really good paragraph. Or, instead of trying to deliver multiple screens of an application, I just focus on one screen, or on one link between two screens. Or, instead of trying to deliver an entire module of code, I just focus on one or two individual functions.

Or, instead of trying to speed-read an entire chapter of a book, I spend a long time reading the first couple of pages, so that I get a very firm grasp of the foundation that the chapter rests on. In this last case, I have found that reading a book this way often leads to mentally “unlocking” the conceptual framework of the book, such that I then understand the contents so well that speed-reading actually works!

When you deliver that small amount of work, you may get a small dopamine kick. You feel a sense of achievement. You might even reward yourself with a treat! (Say, a tasty snack, or drink, or a short break.)

Because you’re reducing your focus to one element at a time, you’re able to deliver more rapidly and responsively. You can deliver a small part rapidly, then another one.

I believe this is the real spirit of many of the ideas of “agile”, “iteration”, etc. It’s not a spirit of pressure, rushing, panic, etc., but rather, of slowing down, identifying one or two things that you can break off and focus on. Those things being small enough that you can deliver them, learn from them, and then decide on your next step as appropriate.

Forces

Combining multiple small forces, all pushing you in a similar direction, you can move closer to your goals with less effort.

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Imagine a big, long-term goal you might have. Perhaps it’s to lose weight. Perhaps it’s to save up enough money to retire, or at least, to live more comfortably.

It’s the kind of goal that won’t happen overnight, and won’t happen without significant effort and perspiration (and perhaps risk).

You may find it very difficult to see that goal through to the end. There may be multiple factors over time that make it difficult. There are things that make it constantly difficult to achieve your goal.

For example, you’re trying to eat less in order to lose weight, but, almost constantly, occasions or situations seem to arise that make that goal difficult. For example, it’s late at night, you find yourself starving, and you find it hard to resist going to the freezer and reaching for the frozen pizza.

Or you’re trying to save money, but situations seem to keep arising that cause you to have to spend money.

A strategy I’ve found helpful is to try to position myself so that I have multiple forces pushing me toward my goal, rather than pulling me away from it.

Imagine a beach-ball on the pavement, which you’re trying to move without directly pushing it. You try blowing at it. But it’s a windy day and your breath is no competition for the winds blowing in multiple directions, perhaps even in your direction.

But now imagine if you and 3 friends stood in front of the ball, all of you holding leaf blowers. Each of you standing at a slightly different angle, but all aiming the ball in a generally common direction. That ball would be much more likely to go where you want it to!

And it can be the same with long-term goals and forces that push you one way or another in life.

Going back to the example of losing weight, if you rely only on your will power and, say, a diet plan, you may be on course for a while, but then veer off, due to other complex forces getting in the way.

But you could combine your will power and diet with multiple other forces. For example:

  • You could move house to a place that’s very close to a gym. Now that the gym in a few minutes’ walk away, rather than a 30 minute commute, it’s more likely that you’ll go there regularly.
  • You could make less food available to you at any given time. You even buy a smaller fridge, which can fit less food in it, so that instead of a few footsteps away, the food is a walk-to-the-shops away. Or you might put your food on a high shelf. Or try to spend less time at home, so that you’re not tempted.
  • You could get into a habit of preparing/cooking low-calorie, highly filling foods. This might mean learning cooking methods that are simple and fast. That way, you’re more motivated to, say, quick-steam some broccoli, rather than put a pizza in the microwave oven. (At least one person I know has gotten rid of their microwave altogether!)
  • You could attend some kind of support group or meetup of dieters, where you motivate eachother and give eachother tips. So the influence of that group pushes you in the direction of weight-loss.

Or take money as another example:

  • You could move to an area where rents are cheaper, so you’re paying less for housing.
  • You could also choose, among the cheaper places to live, an area that’s farther away from expensive shops, e.g. clothing stores or tech stores, so that there’s less temptation to spend money on these kinds of items.
  • You could let your friends know about your goals, and have them encourage and support those goals, perhaps even hold you to account for them!
  • You could visualise your goal – perhaps make a drawing about it and put that on your wall so you see it regularly, or set your morning “wake-up” alarm to some piece of audio that reminds you of your goal, say, a song or an excerpt from a speech.

If you have your life set up so that there are many forces pushing you where you want to go, then it’s more likely that you’ll get there by sheer inertia, even while your will-power and resolve goes through ups and downs.

These techniques can also be applied within the workforce, whether you’re a business owner, manager, employee, consultant, etc. For example, if you want to develop a new skill or competency, you could might try:

  • Regularly listening to a podcast that’s oriented around that skill
  • Volunteering to teach someone the basics of that skill for free (trying to teach someone else a subject can be an excellent way to test and strengthen your grasp on it)
  • Finding authoritative sources on the subject and absorbing their influences (e.g. books or articles they write, talks they give, etc)
  • Applying aspects of that skill to your current work (techniques such as “job crafting”) can be useful here

By combining lots of small forces together, which all point in a certain direction, you are much more likely to have yourself “carried along” in that direction, while hopefully avoiding excessive effort or pressure.

Credits

Similar ideas can be found in the Job Crafting movement, The Startup of You by Reid Hoffman and How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big by Scott Adams.

 

Company

What kind of company would you want to run, if you had to choose? Now, imagine your life as that company.

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Imagine a large, buzzing company. It has a large, public audience and large customer base. It has many people working for it. It has a big portfolio of assets and liabilities and millions or billions of dollars of investments.

Could you think of yourself like a company?

You may not have millions of customers. However, consider people you interact with regularly. Perhaps colleagues, clients or clients, people in a meeting, even friends, relatives or aquaintances. These people could be thought of as an “audience”, or a number of “audiences” and perhaps as a customer-base.

You may not have many (or even any) employees. However, consider people you pay. Perhaps you run a small business and have a few people on the payroll. Or perhaps there are people you pay for personal goods and services – the hairdresser, the person at the checkout, a legal professional, the barista at the coffee shop. They are all people who you pay for their time and effort. These people could be thought of as “employees”.

You may not be dealing in financial accounts in the millions. However, consider your personal finances. What are some assets that you might have yourself? You might have money in savings, in a bank account, or money available on credit. You might have physical assets, such as a home that you own or rent, a car or bike for transportation, etc. You might have equipment, such as computers, storage facilities, tools. These could be thought of as assets. You likely also have liabilities, perhaps a mortgage on a house.

Finally, most companies have products that they sell and/or services that they provide. Well most likely there are products and/or services that you provide. The service might be the line of work that you do, for those who employ you or for your clients. If you’re a student then perhaps there are people in your network, e.g. other students you help out or internships / apprenticeships you take. And there are services you will provide in the future, when you do get a job.

There are other things you might think of as being “assets” or “property” of a company, such as brand, culture, style. These things can be intangible, but strongly affect a company, giving off a vibe or a feeling to customers and employees about what that company stands for. You could think of yourself as having these kinds of characteristics. A personal brand. A personality. A characteristic or perspective that you bring to a situation, and that people recognise you by. These could be thought of as intangible assets.

A company can have a history and a culture, and so can you. Whether its your accent, your handwriting, a vocabulary, a religious upbringing, you bring with you a whole myriad of historical and cultural influences, coming from your family and/or the environment you grew up in.

Finally, companies have partnerships, and so do you. Whenever you ask a friend for help with something specific, which you know they will be more knowledgeable about, and which you prefer not to focus on, that could be thought of as a partnership. Perhaps you have a very close partnership in the form of a relationship. Or other kinds of partnerships, such as people you trust to get advice from, in certain specific areas. Or people you do business with or in some other way, in which there’s a division of labour.

If you consider all of the above areas of life, and how they are similar to the functioning of a company, that could lead to some interesting questions.

Where do your strengths lie? What are your core and non-core competencies? What kind of role do you want to play, in the ecosystem of people and influences in which you find yourself? What opportunities exist, given the above? And what are the constraints of limiting factors you need to be mindful of?

What kind of company would you want to run if you were a CEO? In a sense, you already are a CEO. You have products/services that you offer. You have an audience and perhaps customers and clients. You have assets – tangible and intangible. You have a kind of brand, style, history, culture, whatever you call it.

By thinking of yourself as the CEO of the company that is “your life”, you can start to make choices that steer your life in the direction you would prefer.

You might think about your audience. The people you interact with. Survey the different groups of people and what they’re looking for. And see if you can tailor your messages to them. Perhaps you can serve them in a different way. One that gives you an opportunity to shine, and do your best work.

You might think about where and how you spend pay for services and products. There may be ways to reduce spending on things that aren’t essential or core to your life. But there may also be ways to increase or channel spending, which make you better and stronger and the core of what you do. Some basic examples may be tools, books, education, courses, events. But there may be other less obvious ways of spending money that give you a boost. All of these could be seen as re-investments back into your own growth.

You might think about your history, culture and personal style. How do these currently work to help you. Might there be aspects of your background that you hadn’t thought about in a while, which you could explore and perhaps bring out more, to reap advantages?

You might think about your partnerships. What are some partnerships that you are currently in, which work well for you? Are there other partnerships you haven’t looked into yet, which you might offer value?

Finally, you no doubt have values. Moral or ethical concepts that come out of your background and/or that you have made a deliberate effort to cultivate. You may or may not be able to practice them in every situation, but the more you steer your life in the direction of those values, through small choices you make on a regular basis, the more you can steer yourself towards a life in which you can practice them in most, if not all, situations.

So what kind of company would you want to run, if you had to choose? And how would you run your life as the CEO of that company?

Downtime

Work and life comes to us in ebbs and flows. The “ebbs”, or “downtime”, can be a great opportunity for “slow thinking”.

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Have you been working on a large, challenging, long-term undertaking? Perhaps a startup, or a large corporate project?

You are probably going to find that there are up-times and down-times. Ebbs and flows.

There will be stretches of time during which you’re fully engaged and “in-flow”, i.e. you’re spending multiple hours of a day, perhaps 6 or even 8, and those times are fully engaging you, and you’re using most of your mental and physical capacities, and you’re engaged in the immediate problem at hand.

But you will also probably notice that there are downtimes. These will vary in length and frequency, according to the nature and kind of work, the industry you’re in, etc. For example, some industries are seasonal. Some corporations have periods where people are away on holiday at certain times of the year. Some consulting relationships go through periods of less direct contact/communication with the client.

These “down” periods could go for months or weeks at a time, or parts of the week (e.g. weekdays vs. weekends), or parts of the day (e.g. morning vs. afternoon).

It can be helpful to notice these downtimes and to spot the patterns in them. This is because, during these downtimes, you can perform activities, mental or otherwise, which are better suited to downtime. Activities which would be more difficult to do during “uptime”.

During uptime, you’re in a more “reactive” move, responding rapidly to events and situations as they occur. Whereas during downtime, you can do more of what I call “slow thinking”.

By “slow thinking” I’m referring to things such as strategic thinking or long-term planning. Taking a step back and thinking about the bigger picture. Asking what you’re trying to do. What are the broad goals? Are my day-to-day actions (when I’m in “uptime”) appropriately focused on, and contributing to, those goals? And, heck, am I enjoying myself? Is this sustainable over the long term? Are there strategic changes or tweaks I could be making? For example, could I be taking my effort in one domain and applying it to a different market, where it’s more sought-after or more valuable, or applying it to an additional market, so that I can increase my customer-base?

Using down-time in this way may not only be beneficial – it may be critical. It may only be in those slower contemplative moments that you identify a major problem or issue or risk to what you’re doing, that otherwise would have gone un-noticed in the hustle and bustle of “getting stuff done”. So it can be important to pull yourself out of up-time, if needed, and deliberately move into down-time, to give yourself a proper chance to have insights you wouldn’t have otherwise had the time and space to have.

The down-time can function as a kind of rehearsal for up-time, because, during down-time, you are preparing ahead-of-time for the decisions you’ll need to make and the actions you’ll need to perform when you’re back in up-time again.

During down-time I recommend putting yourself in spaces and doing things that mentally relax and inspire you. Perhaps visiting a calm and peaceful place such as a park or a camping site. Perhaps walking or exercising. And giving your mind a chance to “tick over” everything. Everyone has a different way and you might have your own way of creating a space. But whichever way you choose, it should give your mind freedom to contemplate, wander, retrospect, revisit and then be strategic about the future and the next steps.

Repurpose

All manner of physical and virtual assets exist around us, and are ripe for being repurposed to serve new ends.

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Many years ago I once read a magazine article about some children living in a very poor village. They didn’t have the luxurious plush-toys or the sophisticated talking birds that we had in the West. What they did have was old metal coat-hangers. So they would bend and mould the coathangers into various new shapes and designs, for example, a toy car.

This got me thinking about how many items in our everyday life can be repurposed – altered a drastically (or just slightly) to serve a different purpose than what they were originally intended for.

You could take a television that you watch passively, attach a processor of some kind (say, an Atari), and attach an input device (say, a joystick) and, all of a sudden, it has become an interactive gaming experience.

Repurposing can also occur in the intangible, “digital” space. You can dig into your email history, find something that was sent by a colleague or coworker or friend or someone else you know, and that message, which was meant for one purpose, could be re-purposed to serve a totally new purpose. There’s nothing stopping you from taking that entire email, perhaps tweaking a few words in the body and changing the subject line, and sending it to someone else, for a totally new purpose.

We have incredibly sophistocated tools now, enabling us to repurpose practically any kind of digital asset. We can use graphics editors to manipulate bitmap images, vector graphics editors to manipulate drawings, video editors to manipulate video, specialised content editing tools to manipulate pieces of text, all the way through to sophistocated algorithmic modelling tools that can manipulate mathematical matrices.

Repurposing is much easier with digital items, and we can think of the assets we own and/or have access to (e.g. email, chat and text histories, social media profiles, documents, audio/video footage, online resources, even physical items such as advertising/marketing you see in the space around you) as fields and fields of space, containing potential gold or diamonds buried underneath.

If you happen to encounter some asset or artifact that serves its purpose very well in one context, consider how you might repurpose it to serve well in a totally different context.

Credits

The ideas presented in this article draw some inspiration from Silicon Valley, such as the history of Slack as recounted by Steward Butterfield.

Spaces

Spaces can be chosen carefully, to better match the kind of activity you’re doing, and make you more effective.

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When you got out of bed this morning, what sort of space did you see around you? What colour was your ceiling and how high? What kind of furniture and furnishings did you see around you? What colour were your bedsheets?

And when you got up and went for a walk, perhaps went to get breakfast from the kitchen or grab a coffee, what kind of surroundings were you in? And then when you went to work or to meet someone, what kind of space was that? Did you go up flights of stairs or catch an elevator? What kind of space was that? What colour were the pieces of furniture around the office – the walls, the dividers, the desks, etc? What sorts of colours and shapes did you see around you?

It’s been common knowledge for some time that spaces can affect how we think and feel. Companies will spend millions of dollars on quality spaces. If they were only trying to cut costs, perhaps we would all work in sheds or warehouses. But no, it’s often considered important to invest in a good, suitable office space for workers. And it’s not only companies that do this, but also government institutions, universities, schools, etc. We are surrounded by various kinds of buildings and outdoor and indoor spaces.

Because these spaces can affect how we think and feel, perhaps there are ways we actively choose and how and when to use them, to our advantage.

If you’re putting in a lot of hard work on some project or other, your efforts may be helped by a space that motivates you. A space that makes you feel empowered or inspired. Perhaps a buzzing cafe, or a vibrant co-working space, or a university campus.

Or if you’re working on something stressful or complicated, perhaps you need a space that’s quiet, calm and plain, to put your mind at ease. Perhaps a park, a library, a museum or your bedroom.

Why not go over the list of spaces you occupy throughout a typical week? You could even grab a pen and paper and write them out as a list.

And then think about those spaces and see if there are some small tweaks you could make, so that certain activities can be done in a more suitable space.

If you’re trying to start your own company on Mondays, and feeling a bit lonely or de-motivated, try moving your work from that quiet living room in your house to that buzzing cafe next door. You might even transfigure the setting, imagining that those other people are also part of your venture and are working with you!

If you’re trying to solve a tricky machine-learning problem on Wednesday, and need as much mental space, concentration and focus as possible, try doing it in the serenity of a park, or the quiet, calm monumentality of a large museum.

Also have a think about what spaces are available to you. There are the usual work areas, such a cafes, libraries, etc. but there are other spaces that don’t always come to mind right away. For example, a local community hall could be leased for a night, cheaply or for free. You could use it to practice public speaking, or to work with a small team on a startup.

Select your spaces wisely and make them work for you.