Category: Things I Learned (page 1 of 6)

Some values-based career advice

Earlier this week I got an email from someone I got to know a few months ago. They asked for the kind of advice that a few people have requested from me before, and which I’d usually dispense by email. However, given that it’s advice that could potentially help a wider audience, I’ve decided (with their permission and without identifying them), to reply in the form of a blog post.


The problem

In their email, the problem stated was broadly this: they want a different kind of life, and feel slightly envious of those who seem to be able to pick and choose opportunities that fit with their values. Why can’t they seem to do the same?


Introduction

I’m going to split this post into two halves. The temptation when giving advice is to jump straight to practicalities, but it would be remiss of me not to situate it in a wider context and framework. Where am I coming from and what assumptions am I making? To explain some of that, I’m going to use three quotations to get a bit philosophical and explain my approach to life โ€” or, at least, the approach to which I aspire.

Then, in the second half of this post, I’ll get a bit more specific with three things I think you need to be ‘successful’ and find a position that’s in line with your values. I’ll give some examples, too.


1. Philosophy

I’m a big believer in quotations to motivate you towards action. In fact, as I look up from my desk, I’ve got two on my wall directly in front of me: “THINK LESS. DO MORE” and Albert Camus’ famous “invincible summer” quote.

I thought carefully about which quotations could sum up the advice I wanted to give in this post. Two of the quotations are taken from books I look at repeatedly as part of my daily reading, while the other one I lean on when procrastinating.. I’ll save that one for last.

1a. Aim for a ‘tranquil flow of life’

One thing I’ve learned in my thirties, and particularly after having children, is that you can try too hard to bend the universe in your direction.

“Seek not that the things which happen should happen as you wish; but wish the things which happen to be as they are, and you will have a tranquil flow of life.” (Epictetus)

That’s not to say that you should just give up and float along on the tide of popular opinion. Rather it’s a step towards living an antifragile life and a foot in the door to the world of Stoic philosophy. In that regard, I’d highly recommend purchasing Ryan Holiday’s The Daily Stoic: 366 meditations on wisdom, perseverance, and the art of living.

Hopefully, it’s pretty clear why I’ve included this quotation first. Stoics aren’t constantly raging against the machine, but nor are they bobbing along with the tide. Everything is an opportunity to put your values to the test. As I often say to my children, “your reactions tell people more about your character than your actions.”

1b. Master yourself

Stoicism isn’t something that you just learn in your head and then you’re done. It’s something that you practice. Perhaps the thing that needs practising the most is mastering your emotions.

“Thereโ€™s no greater mastery than mastery over yourself and your emotions; it amounts to a triumph of free will.” (Baltasar Graciรกn)

I didn’t realise just how importance emotional stability was until I saw how hiring and promotion works within most organisations. We’ll get into the specifics in the second half of this post, but it’s a huge advantage both to you and those you work with if they can rely on your emotional stability.

For most people and organisations, they’ll favour reliability over brilliance every day of the week. I suppose that’s mainly because they don’t want people who may end up being a liability. When I’m hiring, I’m perhaps a little more tolerant of the ups and downs of emotional and creative life, but nevertheless I want to know that someone on my team isn’t likely to regularly have emotional meltdowns.

Anyone who knows me might well laugh at my giving this advice, as it’s perhaps the thing I struggle with most. I’m getting better, and certainly more emotionally stable than a decade ago, but (like everything!) it’s a constant work in progress.

1c. Make the jump

When all is said and done, the person who holds you back the most in your life and career is… you. That little voice in the back of your head, the thing Steven Pressfield calls The Resistance, is responsible for irrational fear, self-censorship, and missed opportunities.

“Leap, and the net will appear.” (John Burroughs)

I find this six-word quotation to be extremely powerful. It reassures me that things won’t be as bad as I think, and that at the end of the day I’ll be OK. The thing that’s likely to be damaged most if O do need the ‘net’ is my ego. And I can deal with that.

It’s worth saying that I’m all too aware that I’m writing this from a position of white, male, middle-class privilege. I get that. But at the same time, I see a lot of people scared to apply for a job that they feel under-qualified for, move to a different country, or even point to the work they’re most proud of, for fear of the consequences. You’re likely to be pleasantly surprised if you make the leap.

After all, to paraphrase Aristotle, we become brave by acting as if we were brave. Just get on and do it. And I write this as someone who has occasional anxiety issues. So send in the application, put your house up for sale, and send a link to your work to someone you admire.


2. Practical advice

OK, let’s get to some specifics. I’ve been hiring people recently for the work I’m doing on MoodleNet, so the following advice is given with that in mind. It’s also based on my career thus far, and what I’ve seen when coaching others.

I’m going to use the word ‘success’ here as a shorthand for success as defined by you. If you’re currently chasing status, I’d suggest that the first thing you need to do is re-read the previous section, reflect on what you’re trying to achieve in life, and perhaps read the story of the Mexican fisherman.

I reckon that you need (at least) these three things to be ‘successful’ in crafting the life you want to lead:

  • Proof of expertise
  • Character
  • Luck

Let’s break down what I mean by each of these, with some examples.

2a. Proof of expertise

The original question was about crafting a life that fits with your values. Let’s think about that and work backwards. To be in a position to pick and choose between what you do next, you need to either be well known enough to have people approach you, or have demonstrable skills and experience.

This is usually done through CVs or resumes that list bona fides (see examples here and here) and is what LinkedIn was set up for. It’s no good having the skills if you can’t prove that you’ve got them. That’s why I’ve been so interested and supportive of the Open Badges work over the last few years; it’s a way of demonstrating that you’ve got talent.

The reason eportfolios never really took off were because we still use proxies for expertise, rather than the evidence itself. So, for example, once you’ve got that PhD or have worked for Google, people aren’t asking for ‘three years project management experience’, and the like. We rely on other people’s filters that we trust to do the hard work.

When I worked at Mozilla, we hired a lot of people from the Obama For America (OFA) campaign. The OFA tech team had been lauded in the press for their work, and they (quite rightly) were snapped up by Mozilla and other tech companies as soon as they became available.

The OFA example is illustrative because it’s an example of volunteering for a role that becomes a stepping-stone to bigger and better things. The old advice was ‘dress for the job you want’. Nowadays, I’d say ‘volunteer for the job you want’. When I found out about Open Badges, I started volunteering and showing some leadership in the Mozilla community. A year later, I was flown to San Francisco by the MacArthur Foundation to judge the DML Competition, and was offered a job by Mozilla.

Show up. Put the work in. But also be aware of things that might act as a shortcut that you could use a springboard into your next gig.

2b. Character

To have a position that fulfills you and meshes with your values, you have to know what your values actually are. The reason I include ‘character’ here is not just because of the facet of ‘resilience’ or ‘grit’ (to which it seems to have been reduced recently, but all of the other things that it connotes.

To me, an individual’s character flows from their values, what they stand for. Perhaps I’m becoming middle-aged, but it seems that a lot of the problems with today’s society is that people don’t stand for anything other than individualism and whatever late-stage capitalism can offer them. You don’t have ‘values’ and demonstrate character just because you purchase one brand instead of another.

There’s an episode of Seth Godin’s Akimbo podcast cleverly entitled Don’t just do something, stand there. He explains that we’re always concerned with being seen to do something, rather than taking our time to figure out whether something should be done. That ability to stand firm in the face of adversity, criticism, or resistance, is more than just resilience, it’s character.

When it comes to your career, it means deciding on what it is that you’re willing to accept, and what you’re not. It may have a negative effect on how much money you earn.

I remember once meeting a couple of people at a conference somewhere in Europe. They’d both been hired by a pretty shady university that’s routinely accused of predatory practices. Rather naively, they assumed that they would be able to maintain their personal values while working for an employer that was 180-degrees opposed to them. I assume that they’ve either now abandoned those values, or they’re no longer working for the organisation. Something has to give.

So when it comes to choosing who to work for, trust your gut. Of course, there are times when you need money to ensure the base layers of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs are covered, but beyond that, use the Japanese concept of Ikigai to help prioritise your life. Your values don’t have real-world impact unless you’re willing to give something up in order to stick to them.

2c. Luck

As a society, as parents, as colleagues, we don’t talk enough about the role of luck, fortune, or serendipity and how it applies to success. For example, let’s take Tyler Blevins, who my eleven year-old son knows better through his Fortnite gamer handle ‘Ninja’. This is a guy who seems to be an overnight success.

But, digging deeper, you see that not only has he put in the hard yards, he also just happened to be at the right place at the right time. He ‘plays’ (i.e. practises) Fortnite six hours every day, and has been a professional e-sports player since 2009. Of course, even before that as a teenager he would have been practising and practising.

What sets Blevins apart is that he happened to start playing Fortnite at just the right time, just after its release. He couldn’t have known at the time that it would be the biggest free-to-play console game of all time, and a cultural phenomenon. Blevins is now earning a million dollars per month because he was in the right place at the right time with the right skills and character.

So how, I hear you ask, do I ‘get lucky’? Well, I’d suggest that you need to increase what I call your ‘serendipity surface’. If you’re in an occupation that has a strict path to career progression (for example in medicine or the legal profession) then by all means, focus on the narrowly-defined criteria that circumscribes your success.

If, however, you’re like the rest of us and deal in with a world that is more malleable and ambiguous, then a different approach can pay dividends. There’s a reason I travel so much. It’s to meet new people, be exposed to ideas that might not always be shared online, and to experience places that open my mind. These days, we gain a competitive advantage by connecting the dots in new and novel ways. That depends, of course, on knowing where the dots are.

In order to ‘get lucky’, then, means increasing the likelihood of being in the right place at the right time with the right skills. You’re unlikely to be able to do that by experiencing the same 9-5 grind, day in, day out.

Conclusion

We live in a world of huge opportunity. I’m reminded of one comedian’s comment that we have access to much of the entire store of human knowledge available in our pockets, yet we use smartphones to send cat pictures to our friends.

Plenty of people will give you advice on how you can get a leg up in your industry. That counsel, of course, is always looking in the rearview mirror. It’s about what’s worked before, not about what’s likely to work next. You don’t have to follow tried-and-tested paths if you don’t want to. Find topics and people you find interesting, and find out more about them. You don’t have to be a cog in someone else’s machine.

This is turning into an epistle, and there’s still a lot more I could say. So, if you’re interested, I’m happy to do some one-to-one coaching through my consultancy business. Otherwise, please do feel free to comment (anonymously, if you wish) and I’ll do my best to expand on anything I’ve written so far.

TILTW reaches 100!

A lot has changed in both my life and the world at large since January 3rd, 2010, the date when I hit publish on a post marking the first in a series entitled Things I Learned This Week. The structure of the weekly roundup, however, has remained similar with its rationale pretty straightforward: I get a chance each week to read and review the links I’ve collected and curate something of interest to others. Everyone wins.

Originally, I used this blog to post the weekly roundup and diligently produced TILTW for the whole of 2010 before declaring a hiatus. When I resurrected TILTW in April 2012 it was in the form of an email newsletter (which has now grown to a subscriber base just shy of 400).

I’ve linked to all 100 TILTWs below for the sake of posterity, if nothing else. I’d like to take this opportunity to thank those who have have expressed their pleasure at the newsletter either by hitting reply when the email lands in their inbox, or via various social media channels. That always makes me smile! ๐Ÿ™‚

If you haven’t yet signed up for TILTW you can do so below. The newsletter arrives in your inbox every Sunday morning (UK time).

>>>Sign up here <<<

List of all TILTWs

Originally, I thought that other people might like to create their own Things I Learned This Week. I’m not precious about the name and would welcome more curated content! Feel free to riff on the idea. ๐Ÿ™‚

Image CC BY vxla

Things I Learned This Week #50

Please note that this will be last of these posts for this year. I’ll be back in 2011 [why?]

A Chance to Cut Is a Chance to Cure

Offline this week I learned that there’s literally two types of people in the world (Dweck was correct!), that ‘female festive frenzy’ is now a term in general use, and that brandy hot chocolate is almost always better without the chocolate… :-p

http://delicious.com/dajbelshaw/TILTW50

Technology

Productivity, Inspiration & Motivation

You probably only have to interrupt someone a couple times a day before theyโ€™re unable to work on hard problems at all. (Paul Graham)

  • Do you feel like you do ‘fake work’? Here’s how to spot it and deal with it.
  • Your job is a platform for what you do. So sayeth Seth Godin (with my blessing, obviously)

Education & Academic

[T]here is a class of random walks called Lรฉvy flights, which include occasional long-distance jumps. The distribution of step sizes is described by a power law, which means that there are steps of all sizes and no well-defined โ€œaverageโ€ step size, at least for one class of Lรฉvy flights. They have been observed in various natural settings, most famously in the search strategy of certain animals when food is scarce. For example, hungry sharks will typically scour back and forth over small areas, but if the search is fruitless, they will intermittently โ€œjumpโ€ to new, far-off areas [1]. โ€œPeople have also [studied] Lรฉvy flights in stock prices, epidemics, and small world networks,โ€ says Ajay Gopinathan, from the University of California, Merced.

Data, Design & Infographics

  • And whilst we’re on the topic of superheroes, this minimalist poster of well-known characters is just fantastic:

Miscellaneous

Why did people stop wearing hats?

Quotations

In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act. (George Orwell)

In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer. (Albert Camus)

The people who matter will recognise who you are. (Alan Cohen)

Creativity is inventing, experimenting, growing, taking risks, breaking rules, making mistakes, and having fun. (Mary Lou Cook)

The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise. (F. Scott Fitzgerald)

(more quotations at my quotabl.es page)

Main image CC BY auspices

Things I Learned This Week – #49

Shmuck

Offline this week I learned to fly direct and take only carry-on luggage where possible, that the UK is ridiculously underprepared for snow compared to other European countries, and that thrash metal isn’t as bad as you’d think… :-p

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Things I Learned This Week – #48

taste of winter

Offline this week I learned to buy more bags of winter grit than I think I need, to do exercise even when it’s too slippery to go running outside, and that a bad seated posture can give you headaches. ๐Ÿ˜ฎ

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Things I Learned This Week – #47

Red trees, LWPF, & a path

Offline this week I learned that large beanbags offer the most comfortable typing position ever, not to drink cheap red wine, and that the seats by the Chinese books in Newcastle City Library are almost always vacant… ๐Ÿ˜‰

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Things I Learned This Week – #46

Leaf

Offline this week I learned that Twitter is often a quicker and easier place to sell things than eBay, that eagerly pulling decals off a car will can also remove the paintwork, and more than I could ever summarize in one blog post (or indeed the introduction to one) at Interesting North… ๐Ÿ™‚

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Things I Learned This Week – #45

Offline this week I learned that fireworks displays involve a lot of standing around for brief moments of semi-pleasure, that iPads really are ‘magical’, and not to jinx yourself by stating that you’re “the only one in the family who hasn’t been ill” ๐Ÿ˜ฎ

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Top 10 Links I Shared This Week – #5

The following 10 links were those most clicked upon (according toย bit.ly Pro‘s stats) when I shared them viaย Twitter.

By far the most clicked-on link I shared was Why we don’t celebrate Hallowe’en in our house from this blog (258). But, as I pointed out last week, I’m not including my own posts in these Top 10s any more… :-p

Links given with number of clicks given in brackets:

  1. MSI AE1900 Touchscreen PC Refurb [eBay] (93)
  2. The ‘Perfect Storm’ of mobile learning adoption [diagram] (71)
  3. BBC News: Weakest schools in England to be taken over (67)
  4. How to Stop the Obnoxious “Top stories today by @yourname” (39)
  5. Howto: Roll your own FailFaire (27)
  6. New endowment fund for underperforming schools (26)
  7. BBC News: David Cameron unveils ‘enterprise visa’ (18)
  8. Five new themes – Official GMail Blog (16)
  9. Public Speaking: Concepts and Skills [information on thoughts-per-min vs. wpm] (14)
  10. 50 uses for mobile learning in 16 categories (12)

Things I Learned This Week – #44

SFW this week. Promise.

Offline this week I learned that exercise is a good preventer of illness, that charity workers and trick-or-treaters are glorified beggars, and that toddlers don’t get clocks going back to GMT. At all. :p

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