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Sage career advice from Baltasar Gracián

Baltasar Gracián (image via Wikimedia Commons)

One of the books I read on repeat is variously translated as The Pocket Mirror and Art of Prudence or The Art of Worldly Wisdom. I prefer the latter title, but the best translation I’ve found is the Penguin edition with the former.

It’s author, Baltasar Gracián, was a 17th-century Jesuit priest whose aphorisms give advice on being successful in the world without losing, as it were, your soul.

What I like about the 300 pieces of advice is that, four centuries later, it still feels fresh and contemporary. Although there are parts that pertain to court life, these are easily transposed onto any workplace. After all, politics, intrigue, and currying favour are fairly universal human experiences.

There are three aphorisms in particular coming almost one after another that constitute wise career advice for the ages. The first uses the metaphor of appetite to talk about ambition, the second discusses fitting your job to your temperament, and the third focuses on finding the right time to move between jobs or positions. I’ve used the title for each aphorism given in my edition as the subtitles below.

A stomach for great mouthfuls of good fortune

Maxim 102 delves into what I’ve discussed elsewhere as increasing your serendipity surface:

In the body of prudence, not the least important part is a large stomach, for great ability is made up of great parts. A stroke of good luck doesn’t hold back someone who deserves something more substantial: what satiates one person, leaves another hungry. There are many who waste a choice morsel because they don’t have the appetite for it, being neither accustomed nor born to elevated positions. Their dealings turn sour, and the heady perfume of unmerited honour makes them lose their heads. They run real risks in high places and are full of themselves because they have no place for luck. Great men should let it be seen that they still have room for even greater things and should carefully shun anything that might indicate they are narrow-hearted.

In addition to increasing (or ‘rewilding‘) our serendipity surface, this maxim also deals with capacity. We often talk about increasing organisational capacity, bu we rarely talk about increasing the capacity of individuals to deal with situations, events, or other people.

I’m not sure if Gracián self-identified as a Stoic, but he’s certainly included in the tradition by thinkers who come later. What I like about Stoicism is the balance that Donald Robertson so expertly teases out in How to Think Like a Roman Emperor between ‘indifference’ to events and our responsibility to society to use our abilities (and capacity) for good.

Understand what different jobs entail

Maxim 104 contains some of my favourite lines of Gracián’s writing. I’ve highlighted them in bold for the avoidance of doubt:

They are all different and you need great knowledge and observation here. Some require courage, others subtlety. Those that depend on integrity are easier to handle, those on artifice, harder. With the right disposition, nothing else is needed for the former; but all the care and vigilance in the world are not enough for the latter. To govern people is a demanding job, and fools and madmen more so. Twice the wit is needed to deal with someone with non. A job that demands complete dedication, has fixed hours and is repetitive is intolerable; better is one which is free from boredom and which combines variety and importance, because change is refreshing. The best are those where dependency on others is minimal. The worst, one where you are held to account, both in this world and the next.

What I find so useful about this is the healthy relationship that is encouraged between the individual and their work. Instead of fitting oneself into the confines of a job description, or the role of a cog in a machine, Gracián instead encourages us to flourish as human beings.

Gracián wouldn’t have used the term, but this reminds me of the importance of avoiding what the late Dave Graeber called ‘bullshit jobs‘. Not only are these jobs pointless, but they’re psychologically destructive. There are some jobs that are entirely pointless, Graeber contends, and others which contain pointless parts. I think Gracián would have appreciated Graeber’s typology of pointless jobs:

  • Flunkies, who serve to make their superiors feel important, e.g., receptionists, administrative assistants, door attendants, makers of websites whose sites neglect ease of use and speed for looks;
  • Goons, who act to harm or deceive others on behalf of their employer, e.g., lobbyists, corporate lawyers, telemarketers, public relations specialists, community managers;
  • Duct tapers, who temporarily fix problems that could be fixed permanently, e.g., programmers repairing bloated code, airline desk staff who calm passengers whose bags do not arrive;
  • Box tickers, who create the appearance that something useful is being done when it is not, e.g., survey administrators, in-house magazine journalists, corporate compliance officers, quality service managers;
  • Taskmasters, who manage—or create extra work for—those who do not need it, e.g., middle management, leadership professionals

Given the prevalence of the above in our society (Graeber suggests that it’s more than half of all jobs) it’s worth using Gracián’s encouragement to focus on virtue and variety in our careers as a north star.

Don’t hang around to be a setting sun

Maxim 110 gives decisive advice for those who are unsure as to whether to stick or twist in their current job:

The sensible person’s maxim: abandon things before they abandon you. Know how to turn an ending into a triumph. Sometimes the sun itself, whilst still shining brilliantly, goes behind a cloud so nobody can see it setting, leaving people in suspense over whether it has or not. To avoid being slighted, avoid being seen to decline. Don’t wait until everything turns their back on you, burying you alive to regret but dead to esteem. Someone sharp retires a racehorse at the right time, not waiting until everyone laughs when it falls in mid-race. Let beauty astutely shatter her mirror when the time is right, not impatiently and too late when she see her own illusions shatter in it.

I’ve used this advice a couple of times in my career so far and it’s worked out well both times. Sticking around because of inertia or ‘golden handcuffs‘ is never a good reason to stay in a position or with an organisation. Although it can be a bit scary to make the change, I’ve found another quotation by the author John Burroughs inspirational: “Leap, and the net will appear.”


Making allowances for context and cultural norms at his period in history, I find this sage career advice from Gracián. For those who haven’t read his work, I’d highly recommend reading these three in the context of the other 297 pieces of advice he dispenses in his book. If you can, get the Penguin edition, you’ll thank me for it!

What’s the purpose of Philosophy?

When I was 18 years of age, I left my home in an ex-mining town, and went to university. This in and of itself was nothing unusual, especially given that my parents are both graduates, and my father has a postgraduate degree.

What was unusual was that, having been to, let’s say, not the best school, I felt that this would be a good use of the next three years of my life. After all, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do afterwards.

Even more unusual, especially given the patriarchal culture of the north east of England at the time, was that my father fully supported me in this. Even now, he says it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

Perhaps it was the influence of my mother, a graduate in Theology, but I’ve always been interested in life’s big questions. We’re here on Earth for too short a time not to wonder about everything and everyone around us.

Still, some people look at my CV and wonder how my academic history has led to my job history. They wonder about the value and purpose of Philosophy. What’s it for, they ask?

To ask what philosophy is for is to ask, implicitly or otherwise, about its value. The anxious parents asking what their child could ‘do’ with a philosophy degree are really asking what value that degree will bring to their child’s life and career. But as soon as you ask about value, you’re only one or two well-placed questions away from falling into philosophical inquiry. If philosophy is useless or a waste of time, what things are useful, or a good use of time? What makes those things preferable to philosophy? What measure of value are we using to compare these things? Are there other types of value? Which is the right one, and why? Don’t look now, but we’re doing philosophy.

Patrick Stokes, ‘What’s philosophy for?’, New Philosopher #29

The latest issue of New Philosopher, a magazine to which I subscribe and eagerly anticipate every quarter, focuses on ‘the purpose of life’. For me, philosophy, or at least a philosophical approach to life, helps me figure out that purpose.

One common, incomplete definition of philosophy is that it deals with certain types of problems that other disciplines generate but do not solve themselves. Mathematicians or doctors might run into questions like ‘Do numbers exist independently of human thought?’ or ‘Do people have a moral right to refuse medical treatment?’, but these are not, strictly speaking, mathematical or medical science questions. They’re problems for philosophers of mathematics and medical ethicists, respectively.

Patrick Stokes, ‘What’s philosophy for?’, New Philosopher #29

I’d agree with my father in saying that my Philosophy degree was a great decision. It comes with lots of upsides, including a resistance to the hedonic treadmill, and clarity of thought.

There are downsides, though. The main one is that you can’t just switch all of this off. The questions and analysis keep on coming no matter where you are or what situation you’re in. That’s more useful in my professional than my personal life, I’d say.

But for anyone thinking about studying Philosophy, in any form, I’d strongly endorse the idea. Anything which gets us question why we do the things we do is alright by me.

Where to start? I’d point you to the work.of Alain de Botton, and in particular The School of Life. Many of their books are excellent. It’s far too easy to get stuck in the ‘history of ideas’ approach to Philosophy, which, while interesting, isn’t always immediately applicable to your own life.


This post is Day 41 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at 100daystooffload.com

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 — 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.

“There’s no greater mastery than mastery over yourself and your emotions; it amounts to a triumph of free will.” (Baltasar Gracián)

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.

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