… and in the other half of my life

February 4th, 2010

I’ve been working this week on editing the page proofs of my boss’s book for my Harvard Business School job. (Hence the lack of long, navel-gazing, rambling posts.) Whew! It’s a lot longer than my book was, I’ll tell you that. It’s a good one, though — and already up on Amazon. Check it out. Fundamentally, it is about what happens when people change jobs: Do they continue to succeed? How can you know if a job change is a good idea or not? If you are a manager, is it better to hire outside talent or invest the time and money to develop your own workers into superstars?

Dressing for work

January 26th, 2010

Over the past month or so, I’ve gotten a little obsessed with style blogs, especially those written by academics or freelancers. You know how sometimes you get interested in something, or hungry for some particular food, and it feels like a whim — “You know, I never really knew what the Holy Roman Empire actually was, let me Wikipedia that,” or “Dang, pretzels would be good right now.” And then sometimes it feels like a need, as though your body or mind are suffering some kind of deficiency that needs to be made up.

This one felt more like a need, and I was wondering what was up with that.

To an extent, it clearly had to do with the fact that I haven’t gotten out much in December and January — in December, I had to cancel almost all my social plans due to illness, and I’m still trying to figure out how social life works when you can’t drink and more or less can’t eat, either. (Any local readers know a hip Cambridge joint that specializes in steel-cut oatmeal and herbal tea? Didn’t think so.) So a bit of it was compensatory for my lack of a social life — if I couldn’t go out, I could at least get inspiration from style blogs and put some fun outfits together for when I could.

But the fact that I was focusing so much on the writers and academics, and their work wardrobes, was my real clue to what was going on.

I think this is the resolution I make every New Year — Jewish and Gregorian and school and fiscal and anything else — concentrate. Work when I am working, play when I am playing. It’s hard, isn’t it, for those of us who work on the computer? I’m not saying I even want to work more, or harder, or whatever. Just that when I’m writing, I should write (and not shop for cardigans on eBay), and when I am done working, there should be no vague guilt or occasional checking of e-mail.

Anyway, this is why, I think, I’ve been so interested in style blogs by academics and writers and other people for whom work and life and play and duty get blurry around the edges. Because one way you can define those edges is through how you dress. And when you’re a freelancer, you need all the help you can get. (Oh, all right, I am writing this in my bathrobe, okay?)

So one of my new — not resolutions, but practices — is to get dressed and get out more in order to do my work. I live in a city rich with coffee shops and libraries, and ought to take more advantage of them. I’m suspecting this will help my productivity and my mood (writers, academics, at-home parents, and other home-employed people — you know that dazed, almost jet-lagged feeling when the sun goes down and you realize you haven’t been out of the house all day? Hate that!) as well as the local economy.

Off to choose an outfit!

Interview in CNN Executive Education

January 15th, 2010

I was interviewed earlier this week about that Harvard Business Review article I co-authored, about the five top mistakes people make when changing jobs. It’s a really great interview, by CNN Executive Education. Check it out!

HBR article

December 28th, 2009

I mentioned a while ago that my boss and I had an article coming out in Harvard Business Review on the top five mistakes people make when changing jobs. Here it is — although, unfortunately, you have to be a subscriber or buy a PDF to read the whole thing.

Career advice and the pursuit of happiness

December 10th, 2009

Good grief, how the tempus does fugit! We were discussing career planning and all that a while back, remember? And I asked what kind of advice you’d gotten, best and worst? And geekgirl99 gave this as her worst career advice ever received: “If you could be happy doing anything else, you shouldn’t go into music,” and I got all excited and agreed with her loudly in a subsequent post. And then Shmeepod wrote a really interesting comment disagreeing with us, that I said I wanted to respond to, and never did, until now. Here’s what Shmeepod wrote:

At one point in my life I was very close to going to conservatory and embarking on a career as a professional musician. Now I am much happier doing something else and I have the “If you could be happy doing something else…” advice to thank for that. So I don’t think I am a person in the field who wants to feel special and I am not a non-artist who doesn’t realize that you can’t make a living in the field.

Many people in the fine arts community have had to overcome nay-sayers who have told them they could never make a living doing music or theater or whatever it is that they now do. I’ve noticed that this tends to create an attitude among career fine arts people that anyone who encourages a bit of thought or consideration before embarking on an arts career is just an uncultured meany who thinks that “no one can make a living as an artist”.

The problem is that young artists and musicians who are not sure whether or not they are suited for or even want to go into an arts career have no where to turn to get objective advice because their arts mentors will just think they are being influenced by uneducated nay-sayers. When I was making my decision, almost everyone I went to for advice (including my parents) encouraged me to stick with music for a career even after I expressed my dislike for rehearsals and practicing (both essential components of a music career). There is an overwhelming attitude that if a young person is good at some artistic endeavor then they must pursue it as a career.

Some young people, even though they may be incredibly gifted in the arts, would really be happier doing something else for a career. I think that thoughtfulness about what your passions are and what things really motivate you should be encouraged before deciding to embark on any career, but arts especially require real passion in order to be successful. You can still get by as a doctor or business person or scientist if don’t eat sleep and breath your career every minute of the day.

That is a really good counterpoint, and frankly, Shmeepod, I don’t think we disagree at all. (Except possibly about your last statement, but I’ll leave that to any doctors, businesspeople, or scientists among my readers to determine. If you want a career as an academic scientist, you really do have to eat, sleep, and breathe it every minute of the day.)

I’m sorry your advisers were idiots, which, frankly, they were. You don’t like rehearsing and practicing? Well heck no, you shouldn’t have been a musician! Your advisers sound like the kind of people who are so insecure in their own life choices that they have to continually push those choices on other people in order to validate themselves. If I can make Shmeepod become a musician, then that will prove that I was right to become a music teacher. It’s about the fears and hopes of the adviser, not the true desires of the advisee.

Because if you don’t like the process of a job, but only enjoy its final product, it’s the wrong job. I wrote about this kind of thing a year or so ago, and said, in part:

But here’s something to keep in mind: all jobs, all fields of endeavor have their drudgery, their boring side.

Choose one where you like the boring parts.

When I was in college, I was torn between journalism and theater (no surprise there, I suppose). What finally swayed me is that while I could see myself running the Op-Ed page of a major metropolitan daily, or going undercover to expose corrupt industries, or writing a wildly popular humor column, the idea of fact-checking obituaries made me want to scream. And that’s pretty much how you start out. I didn’t want to climb the ladder in journalism; I wanted to start on the middle rungs. But theater–oh, hell, I was happy just to be sweeping a stage. Cleaning paintbrushes. Running sound cues over and over and over. Bringing coffee to the director.

We have this weird notion in America that if you are good at something, you should do it, and if you should do it, you should do it professionally. How bizarre, really. For one thing, making money off something isn’t the only reason to do it. (Many of us enjoy the act of love; that does not mean we should join the oldest profession.) For another, let’s say you have Talent X. The official job for Talent X, however, will involve a lot of other skills and requirements that have nothing to do with X. How many of you good home cooks or bakers have been told, “You should open a restaurant!” or “You should be a caterer!” as though cooking talent is all that matters, as though people skills and entrepreneurial ability are just afterthoughts?

I think what I object to about the “If you could be happy doing anything else …” mantra is the notion that for each of us, there is One True Calling. For a few people, maybe, that’s how it works. For most of us? We could be happy doing a lot of things. It’s like the idea that there is One True Soulmate for each of us — a silly notion that has probably done a lot of harm, if people go around questioning the perfectly valid choices that they’ve made by thinking that having an awareness of viable alternatives means that they aren’t committed.

Career changes

December 4th, 2009

A big part of what I study at that Harvard Business School job of mine is what happens when people switch jobs. My boss and I are interested in what makes people successful — and, as well, what they think makes them successful, and looking at what happens when people move from one organization to another is a good way of doing that. We’ve got an article coming out in the January (or possibly March) issue of Harvard Business Review on the top five mistakes people make when changing jobs.

So I was very interested to see this item in the British Psychological Society’s blog on the differences, culturally, in how people explained why they changed jobs. Workers from the U.S., three European countries, and China were interviewed. The most interesting finding:

Workers in the United States didn’t ever attribute a career transition to an external cause, such as conflict with a boss. Not once. Instead they tended to mention internal factors, such as their desire for a fresh challenge. By contrast, workers in China almost exclusively stressed the role played by external factors. Meanwhile, workers in the the European nations were more of a mix, attributing their career transitions to both internal and external factors.

The researchers said a lot of the transitions reported by the participants, especially in the USA and Europe, were positive. Generally-speaking, people are known to be biased towards attributing positive events to themselves, and so it’s perhaps little wonder that many workers attributed all these positive career transitions to internal causes. “In addition,” the researchers said, “in many cultures ‘being in charge’ of one’s life is positively valued. Conversely, reconstructing crucial career transitions as purely triggered by external circumstances does not convey a great amount of competence.”

I bolded that because I think it’s absolutely huge. I’m dying to read Barbara Ehrenreich’s latest, Bright Sided, about how America’s near-pathological obsession with optimism (and, hence, the belief that we can or should control our fate) has warped our culture, our economy, our medical system.

We so want to be in control. We so want the narrative of our lives to be about “choosing our choice.” It’s very hard for an American to say, “This bad thing happened. No, it wasn’t a blessing in disguise. No, it wasn’t God closing a door and opening a window. No, it wasn’t a ‘challenge.’ It was a bad thing, and it sucked, and now I have less and can do less than I did before, and if I’m going to make any meaning out of it, well, that’s going to take a long damn time and frankly, there’s other and better things I would have liked to do.”

We can’t say that. Even if we could admit it to ourselves, we can rarely say it. You sure as hell can’t say it in a job interview. You can’t say it to strangers at a cocktail party, either. You can only say it to your closest friends, and even that not too often. It’s like the way we can or cannot talk about chronic illnesses. (Ms. Ehrenreich, not surprisingly, wrote the book after a bout with breast cancer.)

In the “children” chapter of Mind Over Manners, I write about the so-called “mommy wars” between working and stay-at-home mothers. I read up a lot on the issue, and came away more or less convinced that except for a privileged few, neither set are really, truly, choosing, but are rather making the best of a limited set of options:

The repeated talk of “choice” makes women feel entirely responsible for the situations they find themselves in. Is a mother who works full-time really making a “choice” if she dare not even ask for a reduction in hours if her husband is self-employed and she provides the family’s health insurance? Is a stay-at-home mother really making a “choice” if the public schools are so bad that they must be supplemented or replaced by homeschooling, or if child care would cost more than she can earn? If we label the decision to stay home versus to go off to work as a “choice,” it allows us, as a society, to maintain that any negative consequences are a problem for the individual to solve, and don’t require reform of our laws or workplace cultures. I’m not here to offer policy recommendations—only the politeness recommendation that both working and stay-at-home mothers recognize that the other side, like they themselves, are making decisions under severely difficult circumstances.

There’s a career transition in my past that I “brightside” a lot, too. I talk about how fun the job was, but how exhausting, and frame my leaving as a simple “when the contract was up,” and then I start talking about all the cool things I’m doing now. I don’t talk about the fact that “the contract was up” really means “they didn’t offer me the permanent job.” I don’t talk about how I wasn’t even given the courtesy of an interview for that permanent job. I don’t talk about how, on my last day of work, I went home early and cried until nightfall.

Because the contract was up! It was over! I was free to pursue other dreams, and now I’m Miss Conduct! I’m not a loser, I’m a winner!

Sometimes, it is very, very tiring to be an American. Always to be a survivor, never a victim. Always to craft that winning story. Always to feel in control, when science and religion and art and philosophy since time immemorial have converged on the simple fact that we are not.

Or to put it another way, because the language of LOL is true and good:

funny-dog-pictures-lemmunaid-suk

Knowing your job

November 20th, 2009

More careery musings …

When I was in college, I worked as the director’s assistant on a production of Hamlet. (Never had more fun on a show in my life. You want backstage camaraderie, private jokes galore, and excellent cast parties: do a tragedy. Comedies are only fun for the audience.) “Director’s assistant,” unlike a lot of jobs in theater, is about as ill-defined as the responsibilities of a superhero’s sidekick. What the director told me on Hamlet, though, was this: “Your job is to offer me suggestions to say ‘no’ to.”

I was awfully glad he explained that, because he did say no to just about every idea I had, and it could have gotten quite demoralizing otherwise. But as he explained it, the exercise of thinking through my suggestions, and why they would or would not work, helped hone his vision of the play. Everything that he said no to was something that was carved away, leaving a leaner, more focused production in its wake.

I’ve never forgotten that, obviously, and I’m really glad that I had that experience, and with a teacher and mentor who taught me what it was all about. I recently finished a huge project at my Harvard job — my boss’s first book is being published this spring, and we were in final edits until alarmingly recently. And a good deal of what I was doing, during the last few months and weeks, was offering my boss suggestions that he said no to. Let’s remove this chapter. No. Let’s take this part out and put it here. No. Let’s add this variable to this graph. No.

They weren’t bad suggestions on my part. And he wasn’t necessarily wrong to say no to them, either. They were valid ideas that needed to be considered, and I think the act of saying, “This is what my book isn’t” helped my boss clarify what, indeed, his book was.

There’s the job that’s written down in the job description, and then there’s the job you’re actually hired to do. In a functional workplace, these two jobs are at least roughly correlated. But “managing the boss” is part of every job. So is “socializing in a way that is subdued enough not to make you gossip fodder but lively enough to make it look that you are actually having fun and not just putting in an appearance because it’s expected” (welcome to holiday season!). There’s always emotional or intellectual labor involved, whether you are a professor or a plumber, a sales clerk or a psychiatrist.

What kind of emotional/intellectual labor do you wind up doing in all your jobs? As noted, I’m the ideas/alternative perspectives person, and thanks to Professor Ron Willis, I know when to fight for my ideas and when to let them go. The ConductMom is the Difficult People Whisperer. (Note to anyone who’s worked with her: Oh, she liked you. They didn’t assign her to you because you’re difficult. Really. She told me.) Other people become the party planners, the morale chiefs, the bureaucracy wranglers … what job do you always have, regardless of what job title you might be sporting?

What we want to be

November 19th, 2009

There have been so many interesting answers to my “Career planning!” post that I thought I’d address some of them here, rather than replying in comments as I usually do. Just as we sometimes get a little Iggy or Jewy or Shakespearean around here now and then, I think we’re headed for a small stretch of career self-management thinking. Hope you’re all up for it. Given that it’s both 1) what I’m trying to do for myself at the moment, and 2) a big part of what I study at my HBS job, it’s a wee bit inevitable.

First off, geekgirl99 gave this as her worst career advice ever received:

Bad advice: “If you could be happy doing anything else, you shouldn’t go into music.” – Nadia Boulanger

Hear hear! (To the classification of this as bad advice, not to the sentiment itself.) As a writer … and a former academic … and a theater major … and a friend to many, many artists, actors, musicians, academics, and the like … that statement is nonsense. I think there are only two kinds of people who make those “If you could be happy doing anything besides acting, do it!” or “People become writers because they have no choice but to write!” One kind are the people in the field who want to feel special, called in some way, or at least not to feel so bad that they are 30 years old and don’t have health insurance. There isn’t any shame in being 30 years old with no health insurance — but there’s no great romance or meaning to it, either. Really, you could have taken the real estate class and become a leasing agent. You chose not to, which is fine, but it really is a choice. The muse invites you to dance, she doesn’t mug you in an alley.

The other kind of people, and I think these are more numerous, are the non-artists who don’t realize that it is possible to make something akin to a middle-class living in the arts. Maybe not the two-story-house-kids-in-private-schools kind of middle class, but the ramen-is-not-the-only-option middle class. People who aren’t in the arts often have a vague notion that one out of a thousand artists is fabulously wealthy a la Stephen King or Andy Warhol, and the other 999 are starving in an attic. It’s not true. Plenty of folks manage to make a living doing their art, and also doing copyediting, or voiceover work, or teaching, or busking, or working in a box office, or doing any of the other dozens if not hundreds of jobs in and around the artworld, or applying its skills.

So this advice is based on a wrong analysis of the labor market, and I think also on a wrong, 19th-century Romantic notion of the artist. Some people feel their art is a calling; for others, it’s simply something they are competent at. For some artists the work itself is the point; for others, the work is but a way to communicate with other people. As I write, I’m realizing that the reason this bugs me so much is that this advice is so very frequently given to young people with artistic ambitions. And I’m not a fan of incorrect and condescending advice given to the yout’. Buck up, yout’. If you want to be an actor or a musician or a writer you probably can. You might just have to do some other things, too. And if you’re not sure if you want to be an actor or a musician or a writer — well, try it! Don’t let people intimidate you into feeling you’re not a “real” artist if you’re unwilling to suffer.

Stupendousness also had a good “aha” moment:

So while I might make a good detective, I wouldn’t be happy as one. I’ve had that realization about many careers. There are tons of things I think I would be good at, but I don’t think I would necessarily like going to that work everyday.

There’s another good question: what’s something you would be good at, but you think would make you unhappy? And who identifies with JoGeek?:

I’m almost resigned to the idea that I could never stay interested in a single career for long enough to pay off the student loans that got me there. So I work a baseline job that I can tolerate and pursue hobbies instead. Much less of an investment for an eternal dilettante.

I know I do. (In fact, you can chart the rising and falling fortunes of my self-esteem on any given day by whether I would describe myself as a “dilettante” or a “Renaissance woman.”) In fact, tossing all notion of statistical proof to the winds and going with the anecdotal data that most gracefully leaps to mind, I’d say the happiest people I know, careerwise, are either those who have a “baseline job” and lots of hobbies, like JoGeek; multiple jobs/gigs that keep things from getting boring; or a job that requires continuous learning — of things you want to learn, I mean, not the new e-mail security system or how to fill out the new TPS reports.

Anne with an E‘s comment intrigued me — she wrote, “I’ve always tended to want to be ‘just like’ people instead of pursuing a particular field.” Yes, I get that too … the idea of a way of life being the thing that is attractive, a worldview. And the props. When I was a kid growing up in Kansas, my idea of what I kind of job I wanted to have changed quite frequently — psychologist, professor, director, novelist, reporter, lawyer* — but I knew what kind of life I wanted to have: one in a big city, in an apartment with hardwood floors, a subscription to the New Yorker (in some blissful, enlightened future in which I would finally understand all the cartoons), with friends who would debate politics and literature over wine late into the evening. That ideal never changed. I think that is kind of what Anne with an E is talking about.

Please, these ideas are all so interesting — keep sharing!

*That one didn’t last too long.

Career planning part II

November 18th, 2009

I am enjoying all your tales of career advice and aspirations, both good and bad! Please keep them coming.

Here’s a fun experiment: post as your status update that you’re taking a day to contemplate your career, and ask your friends what you should do next. The answers will amuse you. So far I’ve gotten:

* Have a child
* Become a ballerina (those two were the “restructure your pelvic cage at age 40!” answers)
* Send your pic and bio to casting agents –especially those working on Star Trek
projects in need of Vulcans
* Become a high-class hooker
* Be a “slacker Oprah”
* Start a Kenny Rogers cover band
* Learn Spanish and get on one of their soap operas (“Can you beat your fists into the chest of your leading man and scream out raspy pleas of exasperation at his infidelity?”)
* Be a rabbi
* World domination. As a benevolent dictator.
* Rock climbing
* Parkour
* Go back to school and be a paramedic

Try it yourself, and see what your friends really think of you — or what their own projected fantasy lives are!

Career planning!

November 17th, 2009

As some of you might have noticed, the Deep Insightful Blogging has kind of flagged off a bit since Italy. Prior to the trip, as I’d noted, things were extremely hectic: my “sick” kept recurring, and I was also on a work project at my Harvard job that had begun to feel truly Sisyphean. I needed that trip, and I’m still not all the way back to full-on work mode.

I’m hoping that will change at least a bit tomorrow, because I’ve decided that I’m going to take myself, and my laptop, and my coffee money, down to a coffee shop and spend the afternoon doing a one-woman corporate retreat. I’ve got a doctorate, a book, a newspaper column, two blogs, and a job at Harvard B-school: what can I turn these things into? What should I spend my energies on, given that newspapers and publishing and television and media in general is topsy-turvy, and no one knows what tomorrow will bring? What is really important to me about what I do? How do I define success for myself? And what are the intermediate steps — next week, next month, next quarter — to get me there?

These are tricky questions, and it may take more than one afternoon to get them settled. (Depends on how much coffee I have.) These are, to some extent, the questions that my boss and I study at HBS.

What’s the best career-planning advice you’ve ever gotten? What’s the worst? What’s the weirdest thing someone ever said you should be when you grew up? (I was once told that I’d be good in the Air Force. My terrible eyesight and inability to tell left from right would, I think, rule that straight out, assuming my entire personality hadn’t already done so.)

What’s the weirdest idea you ever had about yourself, in terms of what you should be when you grew up? My first genuine ambition was to be an animal behaviorist, which is something I’m still very interested in. Before that? I wanted to either work at McDonalds, or be a ballerina. Given my strongly held beliefs about the horrors that both fast food and ballet inflict on the human body, this is ironic, but I’m impressed that even as a four-year-old I somehow knew artists had day jobs.

Writing isn’t a thing you do

August 27th, 2009

… it’s how you do it.

This is a little notion I’ve been playing around with for a while. It seems that, more than with most careers, a lot of people who “want to be writers” don’t actually enjoy writing. I didn’t used to enjoy writing, myself. Mr. Improbable does enjoy it, although he’s never defined himself primarily as a writer.

People get hung up about writing in a way that they don’t seem to about other crafts or professions. I’m not saying there aren’t lawyers who hate their jobs sometimes, or musicians who get creatively stuck, or pastry chefs who are delusional about their career prospects. You find dysfunctionality, individual or structural, in all jobs. It does seem, though, that ambitions to write lead to peculiarly tortured relations with one’s calling.

I’ve given advice to writers before, and here’s my new take on it: stop defining yourself as a writer. Think of yourself as an X who writes, instead. Writing isn’t a thing you do, it’s how you do it. We happen to live in a culture that practices writing. If you didn’t live in such a culture, what would you be doing?

Telling stories?
Explaining how things work?
Making moral judgments and rules?
Investigating wrongdoing?

Would you be the jester or the shaman, the explorer or the teacher?

Whatever you would be, that’s what you are. Writing is only how you’re doing it.

Part of what’s made me enjoy writing more than I ever have is that blogging has helped me understand what I’m actually doing when I write. I don’t tell stories. I start conversations. And I teach. And I try to figure out the world around me, and let you watch while I’m doing it, because maybe you’ll notice something I missed.

If you’re a writer, or want to be–what are you using your writing for? What are you, really?

Crowdsourcing inside

June 25th, 2009

The phrase “the wisdom of the markets” sounds like a dark joke these days, but judgments by groups of people are usually more accurate than judgments by a single person. (That is, as long as the group result is the average of a bunch of individual results. The ability of groups to make reasoned decisions together is notoriously bad, as this poster brilliantly illustrates.) The British Psychological Society blog describes a new experiment showing that people can get this effect within their very own, single, solitary mind:

You can boost your quiz performance by unleashing the crowd within, a new study shows. The next time your’re asked to estimate a historical date, for example, try doing the following: make your first estimate; then pause and assume your first guess was off the mark. Consider why, then use this new perspective to make a second estimate. Average your two estimates and, chances are, this newly calculated date will be more accurate than your original answer. The new approach is called “dialectical boot-strapping” and according to Stefan Herzog and Ralph Hertwig, it really works.

“Part of the wisdom of the many resides in an individual mind,” the researchers said. “Dialectical bootstrapping is a simple mental tool that fosters accuracy by leveraging people’s capacity to construct conflicting realities.”

I bolded that last clause because this is really at the crux of things. In my Harvard Business School job, I recently reviewed a huge amount of literature on cognitive biases, or the typical ways people tend to make mistakes. There’s a ton of these biases: we overestimate the role we ourselves played in events, for good or ill; we throw good money after bad; we leap to conclusions about other people without taking their circumstances into account; we cannot predict our own emotions accurately. Really, spend enough time reading about all of the ways in which people are predictably irrational and you won’t even want to get out of bed, your chances of making a good decision are so low.

And you can’t really “debias” people like you’d debug a computer program. It’s not a quantitative thing. You can’t simply tell a person, “People typically overestimate how many calories they burn by 20%, so the next time you go to the gym, multiply the number of calories you think you burned by 0.8″ and have that make any difference. The only thing that seems to help people make better decisions is for them to aggressively and imaginatively think through alternate scenarios–in short, to envision how their present construction of events could be wrong. Or could go wrong–even if you are understanding a situation correctly, circumstances can change. If you are thinking to wait out the recession in grad school, say, it would be worthwhile to ask yourself: What if the economy dramatically turned around? Would this still be the right decision?

“What if?” and “How do I know?” — get in the habit of asking yourself these questions. They only make you feel dumb at first.