Monday
Mar202017

Don't Let Your Mind Control You! 

 

"Huh?" you might think. "I'm in control of my mind. I decide what to think, and when." But for most people that's frequently not true. The mind is constantly generating thoughts, and too often one of those thoughts can capture your attention and keep you imprisoned in its narrow, frequently negative, perspective.  Consider: worry, anger, guilt, jealousy, resentment, embarrassment...these are terms that we characterize as emotions but that are primarily generated, and invariably sustained, by thought. The proof: the large majority of the time people gripped by these emotions are reacting RETRO or PROactively, disconnected from the triggering action in time and, usually, in space. When you're in their grip you've lost control - it's all you can think about. Some examples: 

CAREER: Will I get promoted? Why doesn't the recruiter call me back? Suppose I get downsized? I can't believe I wasn't invited to that meeting. This place is too political for me. I hate having a windowless office. How come the boss pays more attention to her? 

RELATIONSHIPS: Why didn't she answer my text? I always pay for dinner. If he only lost a few pounds I'd be more interested in sex. She's too wish-washy. I wish he would do something other than watch sports.  I can't believe my mother talks to me that way. 

If most of those thoughts related to productive analysis or processing it wouldn't be so wasteful, but wasteful it too often is since the thoughts tend to remain in a loop that simply replays the disturbing event and your initial reactions to it over and over again. 

It's unrealistic to expect that you can completely free yourself from this lifelong pattern. But it's quite possible to significantly reduce the amount of time your mind churns. How? By practicing observing when and how these loops emerge. As you observe the workings of your mind you are separating yourself from it, which is the key. You are NOT your thoughts. 

There's a simple observation exercise I particularly like. First, close your eyes and begin slow, deep breathing through your nostrils. Notice the subtle, slightly ticklish feeling in your nose as the air goes in and out (if you can't find that sensation, try pursing your lips and pay attention to the feeling of the air brushing against your lips as you breathe). This should be where your mind focuses during the exercise. As you begin the slow, deep breathing your mind will, within a second or two, generate a thought, seemingly out of nowhere. * Just notice the thought but don't evaluate or judge it (or better still, simply notice that you had a thought). Then bring your attention back to the ticklish sensation in your nose. Keep doing this for 5 minutes to start, going up to 10 in a week or so. If you're like most people you'll find that one of those random thoughts engages you and, before you realize it, you'll have spent a minute or several minutes "captured" by the thought before you remember to refocus on your nostrils. 

The exercise not only enables you to observe the constant churning of the mind but also allows you to strengthen your "mental focusing muscle" so that you become better and better at putting your mind where YOU want it to be as opposed to where your mind drags you. It's a really great way to strengthen your control over your mind, your most priceless asset.

*Sometimes a thought will be generated by an outside noise, or perhaps an itch, but generally no stimulus is required!

Sunday
Mar052017

Follow Your Bliss? Not So Fast!

 

The most prominent "common wisdom" about finding happiness and success in your career is that first you must identify your passion and then pursue it with determination. This template for career fulfillment was popularized by Stephen Covey almost 30 years ago in his famous book "The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People," and it's been pretty much the dominant narrative thereafter.

Since I discovered the book "Roadmap Nation" late last year I've prescribed it to many clients as a prompt to uncovering obstacles to career progress and as a stimulus for ideas for career exploration. Generally the book is well received, but several of my clients have protested that some of the case histories in the book don't really resonate with them. Why? Because they deal with people who in fact had a passion early in life but then ignored it as adults until their dissatisfaction with their careers led them to a path that wound up directing them back to their passion, ultimately leading them to success and happiness. "But I never had a passion like that" these clients complain.*

Cal Newport, the author of "So Good They Can't Ignore You," takes a different tack. "The conventional wisdom on career success - follow your passion - is seriously flawed. It not only fails to describe how most people actually wind up with compelling careers, but for many people it can actually make things worse, leading to chronic job shifting and unrelenting angst when....one's reality inevitably falls short of the dream," (Or in other words when it turns out that the job on the career path you felt passionate about turns out to be mundane).

Think about it - doesn't it make sense that it's awfully hard to know in advance how passionate you're going to feel about something if you've not immersed yourself in it before?

Newport writes (with quite a bit of supporting data) that most often people discover their passion only AFTER investing a significant amount of time and effort in an area**, an investment that leads them first to increasing expertise (Daniel Pink in his book "Drive" calls that Mastery), which brings with it a powerful sense of satisfaction. The satisfaction arises not just from knowing that you're good at what you do, but from seeing how the good work that you do benefits others or and/or makes an impact. Then, as this mastery is achieved, opportunities for advancement multiply. Newport characterizes this accumulating mastery/expertise as "career capital," which can be exchanged for positions of greater and greater control (Daniel Pink calls that "autonomy"), which he views as the single most important element of career satisfaction.

While all of this makes a lot of sense, the issue I have with it is that it's hard to know where the right place/time is to invest the effort required to develop the mastery necessary. Should you invest in your very first job (or, if you've changed careers, in your very first job on the new path?). I believe the answer is "yes." You've taken your best shot at landing the right job, so give it your best! Develop your skills and expertise. If, after a while, you feel you've made the wrong choice, do some research and craft some "betas" - little experiments in other fields that could reveal a path that's more likely to result in fulfillment. So let's say, for example, you're an associate at a law firm but are discouraged about your long-term prospects for happiness. You might want to talk with some people who have successfully transitioned to other paths, and then engage in some kind of extracurricular work related to those other paths (joining groups related to, volunteering to work in, attending conferences about those other paths). 

Newport suggests that there are three factors which, if any are present in your current job, should make you look to depart. One - the job presents few opportunities to distinguish yourself; two - the job focuses on something that you feel is useless or perhaps even bad for the world; three - the job forces you to work with people you really dislike. If any of these are present, look for other work. I highly recommend that you do the exercises in "Roadmap Nation" (or, if you're creatively oriented, in "Designing Your Life" by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans) as an excellent way of identifying a new, promising path. And when you find it, invest in doing the hard, challenging work that will make you valuable in that field and will lead to the advancement and increased control that will contribute so strongly to your career fulfillment.

*Fortunately, the book also contains numerous examples of people who only discovered their passion after extensive experimentation, a bit of luck*, and hard work. Luck often takes the form of conversations with new or old acquaintances or even strangers, who reveal a door to walk through, a door that was undiscovered or invisible prior to that conversation. This emphasizes the importance of connecting with others in the process of exploring career possibilities.

**Newport emphasizes that the effort required to gain the necessary expertise should come not just from an investment of significant time, but from time spent tackling challenges that push you outside of your comfort zone, so that you gain new skills rather than simply improving on old ones.

Tuesday
Feb212017

Emotional Factors to Consider When Exploring Career Options

The majority of the work that I do with clients involves helping them to first identify and then explore promising alternate career paths. To give structure to this process I frequently use one of several career exploration books that contain what I have found to be useful exercises. These exercises identify factors that I then explore with my clients through questions and dialogue, clarifying, and narrowing possibilities.

There are 5 books that I particularly favor: Roadmap (by Roadmap Nation), Designing Your Life (by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans), Getting Unstuck (by Timothy Butler), The Startup of You (by Reid Hoffman and Ben Casnocha), and I Could Do Anything If I Only Knew What It Was (by Barbara Sher). Based on my assessment of my specific client's background, career history, and personality I will recommend one of these to utilize. They each come at the question of "What's the best new career direction for me?" In different ways, but what they all have in common are probes to illuminate the likes (and dislikes), strengths (and weaknesses), and values that will help pinpoint the right next career direction. Some use the concept of "flow" (first identified by Michael Csikszentmihalyi), asking readers to think about situations or activities in which they were so engaged that they had little sense of time passing.

There is one area that they don't explore/explain as well as I’d like them to, though, and that is the core EMOTION that is triggered by certain work. Likes and strengths, for example, are generally focused on things like specific fields (e.g. business, education, travel, politics, or science) functions/activities (e.g. analyzing, writing, designing or organizing) or outcomes (e.g. contributing to the creation of a finished product, advancing a cause, having a positive impact on others, making a lot of money). 

As a result of many years of self-examination and working with many hundreds of clients, I have come to realize that what may really be central to figuring out the optimal career direction for some folks is identifying the feeling that underlies their enjoyment of various fields, functions, and  outcomes. Barbara Sher calls it your Touchstone. Roadmap Nation terms it your Foundation. In my own case, I have quite recently come to realize that what brings me the most enjoyment is just about anything that makes me feel smart. Over my lifetime that has manifested itself in numerous forms: raising and waving my hand frantically because I had the answer back in elementary school (yes, I know, obnoxious!), often speaking first during a case study class at Harvard Business School, taking particular pride in my win on Jeopardy, and currently absolutely loving the work I do instructing others on ways to improve their careers and more broadly their lives.

I'm not sure how many people have this kind of significant underlying emotional touchstone but my guess is that it's a fairly substantial number. This is something I will be exploring going forward, but I would ask you to contemplate whether such an emotional touchstone could exist for you. Think about those situations, those moments, when you felt particularly great about what you were doing - not just in your work life, but in life in general. Then try to discern what emotion was triggered. Perhaps you felt brave, noticed, or superior. Helpful, popular, or inventive. Put your candidate emotion to the test - see how broadly it applies to various circumstances of your life. You may uncover an important key to helping you discover the ideal ultimate calling for yourself, and an aid in chart a nearer-term career path forward. 

Thursday
Jan262017

You’ll Only Get Hired If They Like You

Perhaps one of the most underestimated qualities necessary to being hired for virtually ANY job is likeability.  No one hires a candidate that they don’t like.  What’s more, a reasonably qualified candidate stands a far better chance of being hired than a superbly qualified one, if the difference in likeability is significant.  After all, would you want to work day in and day out with a person who rubs you the wrong way, no matter how well qualified? 

If you think that likeability is a fixed personal quality (some people have it, and some just don’t), you’d be wrong.  Certainly we all are born with basic personality types, and if you’re a pessimistic introvert you’re less likely to connect with the average employer than if you’re an optimistic extrovert (though in some cases the opposite will be true).  However, there are a number of factors within your control that can significantly raise your likeability.  Some, like the way you dress, are very site and situationally specific.  Others, though, are universally applicable. Here are eight (which will be of particular use in a job interview):

Body Mirroring:  Pay attention to your posture, gestures and facial expressions.  Try to reflect at least to some degree the body language of the person you’re speaking with without directly mimicking. If you're being interviewed by someone who's stiff and expressionless rein in a tendency to be highly mobile.

Voice Mirroring:  If you’re being interviewed by someone whose speech comes off as a bit stiff and formal, don’t use slang.  If she is very soft-spoken, avoid raising your voice too much.  Speak with energy, and ALWAYS use correct grammar and pronunciation.

Dress:  Needless to say, dress appropriately for the organization with which you're interviewing. How you're attired will make an immediate first impression, one that you of course want to be favorable. Dressing too formally may suggest a coldness or stiffness; too casually might imply a lack of seriousness or even sloppiness. None of those characteristics will endear you to a potential employer.

Attentiveness:  You certainly want the person who’s interviewing you, or someone you’re simply chatting with, to feel that you’re listening carefully.  That can be most clearly communicated with eye contact (use a lot of it without staring the other person down).  Using phrases such as “Let me make sure that I understand you correctly” or "That's really interesting" also signals attentiveness and engagement.

Watch Your hands:  They play an important role in communication.  A firm handshake is always appreciated.  Placing your hand(s) on your face is generally interpreted negatively: it says you’re bored, disinterested, or judgmental.  Fidgeting (excessive movement of the hands, legs, or body) is very off-putting.

Empathy:  This quality is cued primarily by mirroring, but empathy is not merely a behavioral trick.  It needs to be genuinely felt (see below).  Practice building your ability to be empathetic by taking the time to think about the unlikeable actions of others, and trying to find logical reasons why they might be acting as they are.  For example, someone who’s constantly boasting is probably deeply insecure; someone who’s quick to anger probably feels somewhat powerless.

Being Positive: Positivity isn’t agreeing with someone all the time.  You should certainly feel comfortable expressing your own opinions (see Genuineness below).  Avoid, however, gratuitous negative comments, even about such non-controversial topics as the weather.  No one likes to hear a complainer, and virtually any negative comment that you make can be taken as a complaint.

Genuineness: There has to be a careful balance between implementing the suggestions above and remaining true to whom you fundamentally are.  Very few people can pull off insincerity with success.  But practicing the above suggestions will, over time, allow you to carry them out in a way that rings true, at least on some level.

Monday
Jan162017

"What's Your Greatest Weakness?"

This is an interview question that causes more consternation than just about any other. Here are some suggestions that will help you give an outstanding answer:

1) Like all other aspects of a job search, tailor your response to the specific job you're seeking.

Just like you shouldn't have a "one-size-fits-all" resume, you shouldn't have a "one-size-fits all" weakness. If you're interviewing for a job that's heavily dependent on teamwork you probably don't want to specify something like "I wish I were more comfortable asking for help." If it's a data-heavy job, "I sometimes rely too much on my gut" would be an inappropriate characteristic. And if the job involves supervising a number of people "difficulty in delegating" might not be the best choice to mention. Ideally you should select a weakness whose antidote process speaks directly to the kind of strength that will be particularly valued by the employer. For example, if the job requires the processing of a large number of requests from multiple stakeholders you might mention "a difficulty with time management" while noting that the time management challenge has taught you a lot about setting priorities and establishing realistic deadlines.

2) Focus on a physical, rather than a personality or style, characteristic. 

You might say "because I'm young-looking some people don't take me as seriously as I deserve to be taken;" or "because I'm older some younger employees start off thinking that my ideas are dated;" or "because I have a somewhat high-pitched voice men tend to think I'm inexperienced." The advantage of citing a physical characteristic and then describing steps you've taken to address it (e.g. if young-appearing "I dress a little more formally than I otherwise might," if older "I pay particular attention to my dress and speech being contemporary") shows you are able to make the most of the cards you're dealt. That's a quality all employers are going to value.

3) Cite a trait that is clearly able to be improved upon, vs. one that is more intractable.

"I'm not as comfortable with technology as I'd like to be"" is obviously a weakness, but it's also one that is easy to improve upon (e.g. "I've hired a tutor to teach me html; I've enrolled in a social media certification program"). Same with "I tend to get nervous when I need to speak in front of a group" (solution: "I've enrolled in Toastmasters and have already seen a difference in my confidence level). Contrast those weaknesses with ones related more to your basic personality, such as "I tend to be very impatient" or "I dislike confrontation" - weaknesses that would be a lot harder to convincingly improve upon.

A couple of additional points:

- Make sure you have an anecdote that illustrates your weakness and the improvement that you claim to have made.

- Avoid the temptation to cite a weakness that is actually a strength in disguise. "I'm a perfectionist" can be easily flipped to the strength of turning out superior work, and "I sometimes sacrifice my personal life for my job" suggests exceptional dedication to the employer," but they're clichéd responses that most interviewers will see right through.

Remember that the employer is probably looking less at which particular weakness you cite and more at your self-awareness and the process you've undertaken to address the weakness.