Uncomfortable Touting Your Skills or Accomplishments?

Last week I was hired by a client specifically to work with her on strengthening her interviewing skills. She had been seeking to leave her current place of work for almost a year, and had reached the interview stage a number of times, but was consistently losing out when it came to job offers. She knew deep down that she was doing a sub-optimal job of “selling” herself and confessed that “I was brought up in a family where I got the message that people who bragged about themselves were low class and basically untrustworthy, so I’ve never been comfortable talking about myself.”

Whether in an interview or often in a networking situation, it’s vitally important to be able to convincingly articulate your strengths and accomplishments. But it’s also vitally important that this be done in a way that feels natural, at least to a significant degree. Merely stating your assets without an accompanying sense of conviction will not be convincing; people are surprisingly good at sensing insecurity or insincerity.

So, if this is an issue for you, how should you tackle it? First, try self-examination. Rather than simply accepting the fact that you aren’t good at promoting yourself, be a detective. Where does this reluctance come from? Is it familial-based (as was the case for the client described above)? Is it related to your gender? Women, at least until recently, have been subtly discouraged from being boastful, as it is seen to be somewhat “unladylike”. Is it discomfort with your speaking voice or your mastery of vocabulary? Did you suffer some traumatic incident as a child (e.g. forgetting a line in a school play) the impact of which you are still carrying? 

Unfortunately most people can’t really step outside themselves and do the kind of objective analysis that would identify the problematic issues. That’s why working with a trained professional, ideally with a good deal of psychological expertise, makes sense. Friends and family may have useful insights into your issue, but are unlikely to be able or willing to express them in ways that are as actionable for you as would be ideal.

Obviously, to the degree you can identify the source of your discomfort you can begin to employ counteracting measures, for example signing up for, and attending, Toastmaster sessions (Toastmasters International is a USA headquartered nonprofit educational organization that operates clubs worldwide for the purpose of helping members improve their communication, public speaking, and leadership skills). But probably the most valuable tool in improving your self-promotion is role playing with an accomplished coach who can help you rephrase how you state your accomplishments so that you have a greater level of comfort in expressing them. Practice makes perfect, and repeated drilling of your key "selling" points will certainly improve your performance.


Advice for Budding Entrepreneurs

The following words* were written by Paul Graham (successful venture capitalist, computer programmer, and essayist - how's that for a combo!) on the qualities needed to be a successful startup entrepreneur:

Be relentlessly resourceful.

Not merely relentless. That's not enough to make things go your way except in a few mostly uninteresting domains. In any interesting domain, the difficulties will be novel. Which means you can't simply plow through them, because you don't know initially how hard they are; you don't know whether you're about to plow through a block of foam or granite. So you have to be resourceful. You have to keep trying new things.

That sounds right, but is it simply a description of how to be successful in general? I don't think so. This isn't the recipe for success in writing or painting, for example. In that kind of work the recipe is more to be actively curious. Resourceful implies the obstacles are external, which they generally are in startups. But in writing and painting they're mostly internal; the obstacle is your own obtuseness. 

There probably are other fields where "relentlessly resourceful" is the recipe for success. But though other fields may share it, I think this is the best short description we'll find of what makes a good startup founder. I doubt it could be made more precise.

Now that we know what we're looking for, that leads to other questions. For example, can this quality be taught? After four years of trying to teach it to people, I'd say that yes, surprisingly often it can. Not to everyone, but to many people.  Some people are just constitutionally passive, but others have a latent ability to be relentlessly resourceful that only needs to be brought out.

This is particularly true of young people who have till now always been under the thumb of some kind of authority. Being relentlessly resourceful is definitely not the recipe for success in big companies, or in most schools. I don't even want to think what the recipe is in big companies, but it is certainly longer and messier, involving some combination of resourcefulness, obedience, and building alliances.

This test is also useful to individuals. If you want to know whether you're the right sort of person to start a startup, ask yourself whether you're relentlessly resourceful. And if you want to know whether to recruit someone as a cofounder, ask if they are.

You can even use it tactically. If I were running a startup, this would be the phrase I'd tape to the mirror. "Make something people want" is the destination, but "Be relentlessly resourceful" is how you get there.

"Relentless" has a lot of negative connotations: unyielding severe, strict, harsh, never resting.  But it's really just further along the spectrum of what I call "showing up," doing things to consistently move the ball ahead (whichever ball you're moving).  If you're looking to break new ground you should evaluate where on the "doing" spectrum you want to be, and then ask if that is far enough towards where you need to be to successfully accomplish your goal.

"Resourcefulness" is a fascinating quality, a cross between creativity and cleverness.  It's an ability to find new resources to address a problem. People who are "stuck" in their careers / lives typically consider themselves to be anything but resourceful.  They've tried and tried, but have run out of ideas.  That's why so many of the people sitting in my office have come to me, often hesitantly because they feel they shouldn't need "outside help," but of course the very act of searching for outside help is a form of resourcefulness.

Your #1 destination for resourcefulness should be Google.  Whatever problem or issue you are facing, you can be pretty sure that someone else (or maybe even hundreds or thousands of others) have also faced it, have valuable perspective to share, and have taken the time and effort to express that perspective so that it can benefit others.  I am amazed at how many of my clients say "Good idea!" when I suggest that they consult Google.  Make it your default setting whenever you feel unsure or stuck - enlist those outside resources!

*Edited by me


Feeling Overwhelmed?


You know you need to be tackling a challenging career-advancing assignment:  reaching out to your network. Updating your LinkedIn profile. Reading a book on career advancement and doing the exercises therein. Redoing your resume. Starting a blog. Searching for posted jobs. Investigating new training or educational opportunities. The list of potential initiatives is a long one. And too often you just can’t manage to buckle down and begin.

I’ve found there to be two primary and related reasons for stalling out. Either you’re pretty sure you’re not going to do a satisfactory job (a manifestation of perfectionism). Or you become mentally exhausted imagining the amount of work required getting to your goal (I'll call that anticipatory fatigue). Let me examine these two separately. 

The perfectionist in you naturally wants a great finished product, but if you’ve had occasions when you’ve fallen short (and who of us haven’t?) you’re likely to be gun shy, reluctant to embark on a path with which you have little experience. Here’s what you need to keep in mind: your initial efforts are a first draft. Perhaps a decent one, or perhaps a really crappy one. But a draft. An initial effort. NOT the finished product. NOT where you’ll wind up. 

As for anticipatory fatigue, it arises from a misapplication of Steven Covey’s First (?) principle, “Begin with the end in mind.” If you focus too much on where you want to wind up you may well become discouraged, knowing that dozens or hundred of hours lie between where you are now and where you ultimately want to arrive. 

I see these two issues as related because in both cases the trick to making progress is to focus on the very next step rather than on the final “deliverable.” If you know you need to start reaching out to your network, select the one person it would be easiest to contact. Just one. Having done that there’s a good chance you’ll learn something that will make reaching out to a second contact more comfortable/less intimidating.  

Want to start a blog? START one - that means writing a few sentences on an appropriate topic of interest, letting them “marinate” for a bit, and then perhaps redoing or adding to the original. Don’t post that initial writing until it’s in a place that you want it to be. And don’t feel you need to post something weekly (again, a possibly overwhelming thought). You might want to wait until you’ve written several items before posting them.

Need to redo your resume? You could begin by Googling “resume tips” and reading one or two entries, then mentally applying those tips to your own employment story. Or take a look at some online resume templates to see which ones look appealing.

The other thing to keep in mind is that there’s practically no such thing as an original thought. There are people and resources out there that can guide you, whether that’s a career professional like myself, a trusted friend or colleague, an online forum, or an advice column or article.

So, if you’re feeling overwhelmed, take a deep breath, and then a first step - even a teeny little one. The important thing is to get started.



Two Ways to Help Prolong Career Success as You Age


As Baby Boomers enter their 50s, 60s, and (for the "leading edge" of that generation, 70s), they are being increasingly studied in an effort to understand how to prolong their health. Until quite recently, "health" was primarily defined as physical: ambulatory, respiratory, circulatory, Immunological, etc. But the explosive growth of Alzheimer’s and dementia has placed increasing emphasis on cognitive functioning. And interestingly a number of recent studies have conclusively demonstrated that exercise not only aids in maintaining physical health, but also helps people preserve their cognitive abilities. It is those abilities that can help older workers remain competitive in a workplace that increasingly emphasizes problem solving and creative thinking. 

"Overall, longitudinal studies show that people who exercise - whether young, middle-aged, or older - score higher on cognitive tests than those who don't. Why would exercise make you smarter? Scientists are still figuring it out, but they have some clues. They do know that exercise creates new brain cells in the precise spot that handles new memories; it's called 'neurogenesis.' Ordinarily, cells in this area simply die off. Scientists have also found that exercise greases the rails of white matter as it sends signals to various parts of the brain. It is like moving from a dial-up Internet to broadband."* 

Somewhat counter intuitively, exercise, rather than mental workouts (more on that in a moment) appears to offer the greatest return on time investment. That is not to say, though, that intellectual "exercise" isn't valuable. It is. But it needs to stretch your mental capacity, not merely engage it. You are indeed using your brain when you read the Washington Post or this blog, but you're not really challenging it. And it's challenge that helps maintain and build cognitive abilities. 

What are the best kinds of challenges? Learning a new language probably tops the list. Learning how to play a musical instrument is another excellent choice. And of course solving puzzles - whether crossword puzzles, Sudoku, Words with Friends, or Candy Crush - is great mental exercise. 

Finally, sustained, deliberate practice of the chosen activity (whether physical OR mental) appears to be a key ingredient in improving cognitive abilities. "For four decades, K. Anders Erickson has studied internationally ranked chess players, world-class athletes, musicians, writers, scientists, foreign language interpreters, and even typists, to see why some rose to the top while others remained good but unremarkable. His theory has been incorrectly abbreviated to suggest that genius springs not from genes or innate abilities but from practicing ten thousand hours or ten years."* He would not, in fact, deny that factors such as family support, discipline, a skilled teacher, and starting to "train" early are important. But most important of all, he found, was focusing on weaknesses until they are mastered. "Doing something novel and complex is going to take some time, it's going to be painful, it's going to hurt, you're going to cry. But as we clear out that brush, we develop new neuron connections...speeding up the amount of time it takes (for neural circuitry) to fire and receive."* 

Speeding up as you age rather than slowing down - now that is a sure fire way to prolong success in your chosen career, or in launching a new one!

*Excerpted from "Life Reimagined...the Science, Art, and Opportunity of Midlife" by Barbara Bradley Hagerty, published 2016.



How Cultivating a Service Mentality Will Help Your Career


This post is not about volunteering, assisting, or contributing. It's about shifting perspectives in your interpersonal relationships to a service mentality, from a primary focus on yourself to a focus on the OTHERS' narrative. In a career context that OTHER is your “customer” - whoever you are called upon to interact with*.

I've written fairly extensively about the tendency to emphasize YOUR story/side/justification when dealing with others. This is the "natural" approach, of course. But you need to strengthen the ability to quickly pivot into the shoes of others if you are to excel at resolving disputes, finding effective compromise, placating anger, and, most importantly, advancing your career development. 

What triggered today's post was a series of interactions I've had this weekend while traveling to and visiting Fort Lauderdale (though the same kinds of interactions could have occurred in Ft. Worth, Ft. Wayne or Ft. Knox.) The pleasant ones were those in which my take on a situation was acknowledged in some manner and, not surprisingly, the unpleasant ones were those in which my perspective was either ignored or contradicted. Yes, these interactions took place in a classic "service" context (i.e. at rental car agency, at airline check-in, at a ticket booth), not on the job. And it's certainly easier to see how this pleasant/unpleasant difference would impact your personal fame of mind more than how it would impact your career advancement. But one of the four most important pillars on which career advancement rests is relationship development (the other three being expertise developed through experience or learning, work ethic, and innate talent). Whether you're applying for a job, interviewing for one, or performing one, it's essential to constantly remind yourself that you're looking to create a positive relationship by building "customer" satisfaction (the "customer,"  looked at from a career perspective could be a colleague, a boss, a client, or a hiring manager - see asterisk below). 

Paying more attention to where the other, your customer, is coming from will certainly yield dividends. To take an obvious example: if an interviewer asked you to name three strengths of which you are most proud, you'd be foolish not to first think about which strengths would be most relevant for the job you're interviewing. Generosity or bravery, for example, might well be strengths you are proud of, but if you didn't make it clear how those strengths would benefit the employer you'd be hurting yourself. 

Another example, much less obvious: let's say you're late in producing a deliverable. Defensively explaining why it's late provides no benefit at all to the party awaiting the delivery, but presumably benefits you by covering your behind. How could you get this situation to provide a benefit to your "customer"?  Perhaps by explaining how you intended to avoid this problem in the future, which would have the benefit of reducing your customer’s anxiety about your reliability. 

To put this advice into practice, try to pay particularly close attention to where your mind goes in difficult situations; you will see that it immediately goes into a defensive mode - evolution saw to that as a means of self-preservation. But except in rare instances you should be emphasizing not self-preservation but advancement. Putting yourself in your “customer’s” shoes will help make that happen. I promise. 

*The dictionary’s second definition of “customer” is: “A person or thing of a specified kind that one has to deal with”