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.

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.

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.

Transfigure

Your job sucks. Or does it? “Transfiguring” your work can make it more fun, comfortable and enjoyable.

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Remember being a child and playing dress-up games with your friends/siblings? You might have pretended to be a fireman, a doctor, a policeman, or play some other kind of role.

What a lot of fun it was! You’d dress the part, you’d talk the part, you’d act the part. And you would imagine yourself in that role.

And then a few years go by, and you find yourself in a different profession, one which you wouldn’t have dreamed about as a child. Perhaps you’re being an executive, or you’re writing code, or you’re designing something, or you’re selling to people.

Not all jobs seem to be fun up-front, and perhaps that’s why we get paid to work. We’re being paid to do activities we probably wouldn’t normally do, by default, without prompting.

But I have observed that that the way you imagine yourself, while doing a job, can affect the way you feel about that job, and perhaps how motivated and productive you are at that job.

So what if you were to re-imagine your job?

Depending on your work environment and what it is that you do, there are various kinds of challenges you may or may not face. But there are also various ways of “imagining” that work, which could make it more enjoyable.

  • You are often called into difficult people situations. You find yourself in meetings where there is a lot of conflict, disagreement, difficulty understanding people or knowing what they want, different people making different demands of you. That can be stressful. In this situation, you might imagine yourself as: “Negotiator for the U.N.”. So those conflicts and tensions that seem to be a bummer can actually feel like a lot of fun, when you imagine yourself as someone working for the U.N., in a challenging but important role, that will have big consequences for the future of nations or countries. Your real job mightn’t be as big or epic as that! But that doesn’t mean you can’t imagine yourself as that, and get into a really fun, comfortable zone that way.
  • You are not really doing much. Work is slow/boring. There’s lots of downtime. You could imagine yourself as a secret agent working for the FBI/CIA/MI9. You have intelligence and multifarious capabilities and have been sought out by the government. They don’t quite know what to put you on right now, but they just need you to be there, ready and waiting, to act and jump when the time comes. To find a critical piece of information, at the right time, and act on it fast. And your action can save the country! If you could imagine yourself as that person in that role, it’s no longer a boring/dead-end job, but rather, something critical, exciting and fun.
  • You have to do lots of reading and research to do. It’s tedious. There’s a large quantity of documentation. Pages, paragraphs, sentences, all have to be read and scoured. Perhaps you could imagine yourself as a judge in court. You’re going through the details of the case, prior to a hearing, and you have to analyse the arguments of all sides, being careful, unbiased, impartial. You have to think critically and come to the most fair, just understanding of the case, and help to deliver the most just outcome for those involved. So your tedious, long-winded job suddenly feels important, crucial, and perhaps even prestigious.
  • You’re in a busy, fast, loud, noisy environment. There’s lots of action, words, movement. People are coming at you from all sides. You are constantly having to react. This might seem stressful. But you could imagine yourself as one of the top traders on wall street! You’re yelling at other traders, getting the latest news and prices. It’s a high-impact, high-energy job. You’re suiting up daily, going onto the trading floor and doing big deals, racking up millions of dollars in profit. It can feel fun, exciting and energising, rather than draining.
  • You’re training and mentoring one or more people. Most of your time is spend troubleshooting other people’s issues or difficulties or teaching them how to resolve these themselves. You could imagine yourself as a doctor or physician of some kind. You have a large body of knowledge and experience, people are coming to you with chronic pains and conditions, and you’re applying that expertise to helping and healing them. Calmly, carefully, methodically, you diagnose the patient’s issue, while comforting them and telling them they’re going to be OK. It’s a job that requires a lot of expertise, and by practicing it, you are giving others crucially needed help and healing. It’s a job of profound importance.
  • You’re giving a lot of counselling and advice to one very important individual, perhaps an executive. You might imagine yourself as a therapist. Your client comes to you with lots of anxiety, stress, difficult emotions, perhaps pressure from lots of others around them. And they’re offering up these problems to you. And as a therapist, you’re someone who’s able to help, but who first needs to understand them, to patiently hear them out and listen to their problems, and then to give them the right kind of influence, to help them help themselves and move forward.

The above are just a handful of job “types” and fantasies that you could apply to them. And imagining is just the start. You could (maybe!) take things even further and physically dress the part! Try wearing a suit, if you find yourself in that “busy, fast, loud” stock-trading-style environment. Or perhaps try using props. Perhaps putting pictures or posters on your desk that put you in the mood of the “imaginary” role you’re playing.

A closing point I’d like to make is that the job you’re actually doing and the job you imagine yourself doing may not be worlds apart. The job where you need to be patient, critical, unbiased, may not be all that different from the job of a judge. The judge’s work can affect the course of people’s live. So might your work too, if you consider the impacts, down the line, of what you’re doing. Think of the lives of the customers you serve, or the others within the organisation. The quality of your work may determine whether the company stays afloat and continues to employ people, or whether it goes down and has to lay people off. Likewise for the other “styles” of work. You may not know how others out there are benefiting from your work.

So try “transfiguring” your work. Wear a different hat, literally or mentally, and see if you can have a bit more fun at what you do!

Expand

How do you manage work-place stress? One technique I have found helpful is ‘expanding the problem’.

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Do you ever find yourself, at work, feeling stressed out, tense, a pit in your stomach, anxious and concerned, tired out? Work-related stress seems to be a common theme in today’s workforce, and it’s something I’ve faced myself.

Here’s an example of one way this can happen:

Suppose you have to deliver a report. You feel motivated, pumped. You’re going to focus on your goal and get the job done. Now the first step is to talk to Judy and then Mike, who have crucial information you need. But it turns out that Judy is on leave. So you go and talk to her manager, Beth, and Beth tells you that she can give you part of the information you need from Judy, but for the rest, you’ll need to get off Joe, in another department. So you go and talk to Joe and he emails you a link. But when you try it, it turns out to be password protected! So to get it unlocked, you need to talk to Jim in IT. All of a sudden, this initially straight-forward task of making a report has grown into a complex maze of people and information. Your to-do list is stacking up with items and you get to the end of the day, not having “completed” even a part of the report.

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You feel perhaps a bit agitated, restless, stressed our, or maybe tired or worn out or mildly depressed. You feel like you got nothing done. And that’s not a nice feeling!

This kind of stress/depression can occur even with relatively solitary activities, such as design or engineering. Nay, especially in those activities! Say you’re in the midst of a coding problem, you’ve been Google-ing for a solution, and you find something that almost works but not quite, and you go for a whole day and not really “finish” anything.

What can we do, constructively, about dealing with these situations?

I’ve found that the problem often is being too focused on the end-result, on the solution that I’m seeking. And because of that, I’m judging my progress (and perhaps myself) whenever I fail to meet that result. And by the end of the day, those failures and judgements have accumulated, and I feel a burden of, guilt, debt, etc.

So one mindfulness-inspired practice I have been trying is that of expanding the problem. Imagine the problem as a funnel, very wide at the top and narrow at the bottom. If you try to force lots of material through at once, it will inevitably be blocked by the narrowest part of the funnel. But if you were to widen the funnel – convert it to a pipe – then all the material could move through at the same speed, without blockage.

To apply this to your work mindset: you’re putting all your focus and energy on the wide part of the funnel – the solution. But the process of achieving the solution, the narrow part, is consuming your effort. So you’re trying to force a lot of effort through a very narrow space. But what if you were to mentally expand your work process. Giving it more attention and energy, and making it feel larger in your mind.

So for example, say you have to talk to Judy, and then go and speak to Jim in IT about getting the password, you can see that as part of your journey toward your solution. And it counts as work, and in fact, counts as a success and an achievement.

So, as you look at your ‘to do’ list, perhaps you see a line like this:

• Finish report

Scrub it out! And, instead, write:

• Speak with Jim in IT
• Email Jim password request

And before the end of the day, you can have those two ticked off!

Speak with Jim in IT
Email Jim password request

Notice that now you’re re-focusing on the actions and tasks you’re performing throughout the day, in order to get the result, and not focusing directly on the result.

And you’re expanding the problem-space. Perhaps you identify a whole network of people who you need to interact with, to get the job done. And then you discover efficiencies – ways you can shortcut the process or get extra value out of it, e.g. getting to meet people and learn about the organisation in the process. So, you might not have delivered the report by the end of the day, but you did learn who Jim was, and established a rapport with him, which could serve you well in the future.

By focusing on the problem, you achieve small incremental results on the way to achieving your big result. And you can leave work at the end of the day with a feeling of success and accomplishment. You can close that day off, get a good night’s sleep and come in the next morning with the energy and motivation to keep going.

Additionally, if you’re going through many tedious steps – a process – in order to achieve an outcome, chances are your work is, by nature, complex. Chances are that this complexity will re-appear at another time. So the learning and knowledge you gain from working through this complex process, if you hang on to it, can help you work through other complex processes in the future.

That’s the technique in a nutshell. Expand the problem, give the problem space. Perhaps try visualising it, through writing, drawing, diagramming, etc. Give yourself time and focus on each action/task, each step of the way, and let the solution come when it’s ready.

Consumer

Is your employer only a consumer? Is your barista only a producer? What happens when we flip these two categories?

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Who is a consumer and who is a producer? For some people, it’s economic common-sense that, in economic dealings between people and organisations (such as employment) we are either producing/creating/making things or purchasing/borrowing/consuming things.

I have found it interesting to mentally swap those categories. I will present two very familiar forms of producer-consumer relationships that you likely have experienced.

Let’s start with the workplace. Say you are an employee and you report to a manager. You think of your manager as someone in a position of power, as a kind of customer. You are offering them your services, applying your time and effort, and they are directing you to perform those services, and directing the outputs of those services elsewhere, e.g. to their managers, to customers, etc.

Now take an opposite kind of relationship. Say you are shopping to purchase an item. You walk into one of the big branded stores and you look at the items and then pick up a product. And as you’re walking out the door with your purchase, you hope to yourself it works properly, doesn’t break, and that there’s some kind of warranty if it does. It seems that the producer is in a position of power, able to determine how your product is designed, built and supported. Or suppose you’re ordering coffee from a cafe. You can somewhat determine the product you’ll be getting. E.g. what kind of coffee, how strong, etc.

Now let’s try flipping these two kinds of relationship.

Imagine the ways that your employer or client might be thought of as a producer. The ways in which they have you work. Perhaps management methods. Perhaps ideas. Perhaps frameworks of ideas, ideologies. Perhaps principles, best-practices, etc. Also, workspaces within which you work, optimised for your work activities. And equipment optimised for your use.

Thinking of these and other things as things either produced or provided by your employer and consumed by you, as an employee, can open up new ideas and a new space of opportunity. Those things might be seen as a class of assets, which you could harness and use in various ways, whether or not intended by the supplier of those assets, your employer.

For example, imagine applying a visual design technique you learned on-the-job, at your place of employment, to design a birthday card for your child!

How about the other side, thinking about the “producers” as a consumers? Imagine that the big-brand supplier collects data about you, which they use to improve their products or processes. The cafe perhaps does something similar, to improve the service they’re offering you. In a sense, they’re consuming from you – personal information that opens up marketing possibilities, feedback about their products, experiences, ideas. Though you’re paying them for a product, in a sense, they’re consuming from you.

Could this understanding of the relationship also open up possibilities? Perhaps you can have some impact or influence over a consumption item.

Perhaps you identify and sell an improvement, either to the “producer” or to a third-party, such as a venture capitalist. Or perhaps you smile and crack a joke with the barista, which brightens their day, lightens their load and improves the quality of the coffee!

So whatever kind of marketplace relationship springs to mind, try flipping it in your mind, and see how that changes the landscape and perhaps opens some new doors.