Archive for the 'Career' Category

Limit your exposure to anger and unhappiness.

21 April 2006

As she so often does, Kathy Sierra opens up all kinds of interesting avenues of thought with this great post:

Angry/negative people can be bad for your brain

It makes sense that, if you're around musicians all the time, you'll talk more about music, possibly play more music, meet even more musicians, and so on. Between themselves, doctors talk way more than the average person about medicine, therapies, issues of medical policy, and so on. Angry or unhappy people talk about what makes them angry; they express their dissatisfaction with everything; they attempt to share their frustrations; they want you to join them in anger or unhappiness — or they just try to inflict their anger and unhappiness on you.

Sometimes these people are unavoidable — when we're related to them, for example. But in most cases we have the ability to avoid people like this, and I argue that we should. Personally, I have too many important, positive things to contribute to the world to give my limited resources to other people's anger, especially when it may cultivate anger in me as well.

I would go a step further to say that we owe it to ourselves to avoid angry or unhappy situations or places when we can. If you work in an unhappy workplace, get out as soon as you can. They don't deserve you. Or, if you're in charge, see to it that you make it a less unhappy place, starting now. There's no sense in propagating anger; the world has enough problems without you and me adding to the load.


Get Talmudic.

15 April 2006

I’ve read plenty of advice over the years that suggests specialization as a key way to get ahead in one’s career. Since I’m an intellectual magpie with an attention span approaching nil, I have resisted this advice; while I still preach the virtue of broad learning and broad exposure to many parts of human experience, more and more I grasp the advantage of diving deep.

The issue isn’t whether you can handle more than one subject — many smart people can, and indeed you see gifted folks who excel in more than one area. The example that springs to mind is David Halberstam, who would be known primarily as one of our most intelligent commentators on sports if he weren’t already known as one of our most intelligent explainers of recent history and policy. And then you’ve got the multi-talents like Bill Buckley or Bill Bradley, who may simply not be the best models to follow. Not everybody gets to be Willie Mays.

But even the men I’ve mentioned have allowed themselves to get “Talmudic” in something. Halberstam is a reporter deluxe — endlessly interviewing and drafting in support of his books. Buckley is a controversialist deluxe, and he immerses himself in public policy and the like to make his points. Bradley spent many years obsessively (happily) immersing himself in basketball, and then many more doing the same for things like tax policy.

The point is that each of them found his own piece of ground and proceeded to explore it, scout it, stake it out, sleep on it, dig around in it, climb the trees on it, wallow in it. Warren Buffett does the same when he follows his obsession — finding value in companies. Oprah Winfrey does the same when she explains the world to her audience. Richard Feynman did the same when he cracked some of the great secrets of the physical world. Joseph DeRisi does the same thing cracking open viruses at his UCSF lab. Mozart, music. Et cetera.

In my own lifetime I have been Talmudic about baseball scores, comic books, and a few other things. Mostly I let myself do this when I was a kid, or say up through the college level (that’s when my baseball obsession was at its peak). It makes your mind better, I think, to wallow in a subject like that. But despite my constant engagement with interesting ideas from business, history, and policy, I haven’t yet wallowed in a field during my professional career.

Bear with me here, because I’m figuring this out as I go. As I think through it, I realize that it’s been years since I’ve let myself dive that deep into anything. I write a lot, but not with that level of obsession. I read a lot, but not with that kind of intent.

This led me to dig up a quote about Bill Belicheck, the subject of a recent Halberstam book and by any measure the best coach in the NFL right now.

“Perhaps his most unheralded virtue, but one that explains plenty to me, is his innate curiosity,” Ingraham wrote in an e-mail message. “Bill wants to know what makes things tick, and when applied to his passion for football, this extends to every facet of the game: ‘What makes this blitz work? How do you counter this blitz? How can you disguise this blitz? How can we vary this blitz? Who can I call tonight to talk blitzes with?’

“You get the picture,” Ingraham added. “No stone goes unturned because his curiosity drives him to learn everything he can, which he then absorbs, thinks about, mixes into the boiling pot with the other ingredients and ultimately prepares to dish out on some poor unsuspecting sap. It’s been said that he’s not Mr. X’s and O’s, but rather Mr. A to Z, the complete package. I believe that his curiosity has been the catalyst in bringing all this together. Not unlike some other accomplished gents throughout history!” (NYTimes, George Vecsey, January 30, 2005)

(Thanks to NOSE.)

That’s the kind of “Talmudic” immersion I’m talking about.

Fail earlier and more often.

10 April 2006

As he so often does, Seth Godin nails it with this post: Trial and Error.

People mistakenly believe that one way to successfully avoid error is to avoid trial.

We need more trial.

Here's two more good items on failing more and sooner to achieve greater success:

And a favorite quotation from Winston Churchill:

“Success is the ability to go from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm.”

When in doubt, fail more. 

What’s your default setting?

5 April 2006

People I work with sometimes shake their heads when they figure out the number of different things I do: salaried business writer, full-time Ph.D. student in history, teaching assistant for my department, sometime freelancer, and, help us all, blogger. Seems like a lot, and on days when I feel like I'm being crushed under a pile of rubble, I'm prone to agree with them.

But I'm much less impressed with my output than others are, simply because I see all of my laziness and all the missed opportunities lying around me like wrapping paper on Christmas morning. I guess I do a lot, but not in comparison to my wishes or hopes — and not in comparison to all I would need to do to really kick butt in each of the activities I pursue. My performance, in other words, underwhelms me.

But at a superficial level, yeah it's a lot of things, a lot of activity. (Too many things, truth be told.) I think it seems like more than it is because so many people shuffle through their work, and then maybe they have one hobby or creative outlet — they write stories, or they build cabinets, or they play in a band, or whatever. Living in Austin, I know a lot of creative types who have something going on the side. Plenty of these people, though, also watch t.v. and otherwise spend part of their time passively. For better or worse, I replace most of this passive time with more activity. I'm not sure why I do it, and sometimes the non-stop-ness of it drives me crazy, but my default setting seems to be "go". I have a hard time watching a television program.

Sometimes — way too often — the actions I take aren't particularly fruitful in terms of fulfilling my career dreams.  I spend too much time jotting notes for projects that never come to pass, or researching things that just aren't that important.  Sometimes I fool myself with superficial action that doesn't get at my deeper plans.  But I'm always moving.

What's your default setting? 

Ferrazzi podcast.

31 March 2006

Folks, I've endorsed Keith Ferrazzi and his approach to building relationships before.  For a great, pithy introduction to the ideas laid out in his book, Never Eat Alone, check out this podcast he did with

Career-building: Distinguish yourself.

16 March 2006

I’ve been pleased by some of the private responses I’ve gotten from readers on my series of posts on job-hunting. I had a few more ideas for “rules” to follow, but I thought it would be better to talk more not about job-hunting per se, but about career-building in the long term. Yes, if you’re looking for a job right this moment, the long term may seem like a luxury you can ill afford. But the reality is that the long term is happening, piece by piece, right now; it’s just that the fruit is higher up on the tree of time.

So, while you’re doing the short-term, low-hanging-fruit things I suggested in my job-hunting posts, spare some thought for where you want to be in 18 months, five years, ten years.

Lately I’ve stumbled upon the work of Rajesh Setty, who’s given lots of thought to these questions. I first read his free e-book, “When you can’t earn an MBA . . .” This is germane to my own career because there’s a part of me that would like to earn an MBA–and the knowledge and benefits that come with it–but a much bigger part of me that’s actually engaged in earning a Ph.D. in history. I’ve found that one full-time graduate program at a time is enough!

Setty has also written more than a hundred mini-essays on “How to Distinguish Yourself” in the working world. They are collected in his Squidoo lens. The ones I’ve read so far do a good job of combining practical, what-do-I-do-now? advice with more abstract, where-am-I-headed? thinking. Good stuff and well worth reading if you’re not where you want to be in your career.

Setty posts his “How to Distinguish Yourself” entries & other thoughts at his “Life Beyond Code” blog.

Notes on job-hunting: Energy is everything.

12 March 2006

Covered in the first and second installments:
Rule #1. It’s not over until you win.
Rule #2. Get help.
Rule #3. Fight cynicism at every turn.
Rule #4. Improve something.

Rule #5. Build up your energy. Resisting cynicism and pursuing constant improvement require energy, a commodity often in short supply when you’re out of work. Losing a job puts most people in the awkward position of needing to do something they don’t do well–look for work–at the same time that they must deal with the emotional fallout from getting fired or laid off. Even if you walked out of your old job with a spring in your step, and even if you walked out by your own choice, it’s hard to keep a sunny outlook after a week or a month without the reliable income and daily routine that come with a steady job.

So what do you do to build up your energy when you don’t feel like it? Don’t be ashamed to start with something small. Energy breeds energy, and if a walk around the block peps you up, do it. A well-timed cup of coffee can help. When you’re down, any healthy little step up is welcome. If you can manage one tiny, positive step each hour of the day, by all means do it. Enough of these will give you the juice to do something bigger. Make the big phone call of the day. Clean out your files. Clean out your closet. Let go of some old, limiting belief that isn’t helping you get where you want to be in life. (That last one will give you more energy than anything else.)

While you’re making these emotional improvements, tend to your physical energy as well. Make a habit of getting a good night’s sleep–not just enough hours, but with regular times for retiring and rising. (All else being equal, people have more energy when they sleep at the same time every day.) Eat good stuff, too. Without getting into this or that dietary theory, it doesn’t take rocket science to figure out you’ll be better off with more fresh vegetables and fewer danishes. Drink lots of water, not too much hooch, and get plenty of exercise. Whether we typically do it or not, most of us have a decent idea of what it means to take care of ourselves physically. If you’re looking for work, now is the time more than any other to attend to this.

Use the mutually reinforcing relationship between physical energy and emotional energy to suit your own purposes. Think of it: Why do savvy parents keep their little kids from doing anything too exciting at bedtime? Because emotional excitement–whether it comes from a video game, a tickle attack, or a punch in the mouth from big sister–ramps them up physically. If you want them to wind down and go to sleep, don’t let them watch a Harry Potter movie right up until bedtime. Surely you’ve experienced the same thing when you stay up half the night after a concert, or when friends come into town and you end up talking over old times.

Take advantage of both parts of this virtuous circle by making a list of positive things–physical, mental, emotional–that energize you. Do a crossword puzzle first thing in the morning if that sharpens up your brain. Seek out the people who stoke your enthusiasm or who always have another idea for an avenue to pursue. (Chances are, if you’re my friend and you’re looking for work, I’ve played this role for you. I’ve certainly called on my own friends in the past when I’ve been on the market.)

I’m going to suggest that you make another list, too–of the things that bring you down. Make a new habit of avoiding these. This may be a time to put a few of your high-maintenance friendships on ice, not necessarily forever, but at least until you regain your career footing. Once you’re established in a new job, you may have surplus emotional and physical energy to spare for others. Until then, don’t be afraid to put a little distance between yourself and those who sap your energy, while narrowing the distance with the those who build you up.

All this energy you’re cultivating will help you with the many chores that go with job hunting. But more than that, your high energy will show through to others. The most obvious venue for this comes when you interview for jobs. But it will also be important in the myriad small encounters that can lead to jobs, whether it’s talking with the receptionist at a prospect company or smiling at someone in the grocery store.

Rule #6. Raise your hand. It’s not enough have energy. You have to build your profile by getting noticed. This is true whether you’re trying to land a better job with a current employer or trying to catch on with a new employers. This piece of advice won’t be easy for shy people, or for those who hold the mistaken notion that their experience and abilities should speak for themselves. If you’re looking for work in a small town where everyone knows you, that’s fine–your attributes might speak for themselves. But otherwise, you’re going to have to build your own “small town” of people who know what you’re about and what you can deliver for their organizations.

There is always some way to put yourself forward, whether it’s modestly or brazenly. Build a Web site (or write a blog!) that showcases your capacity. If you don’t have the skills to build it yourself, find a friend who can help you. (Along the way, you’ll probably learn valuable Web-related skills.) Take on contract or temporary or part-time work that will let you show your stuff while making new contacts and learning new skills. Take on duties with your club or church or neighborhood association that offer those same opportunities.

Above all, create a public impression of who you are and what you want from your career, even if what you want now is modest and not fully articulated. This means telling every single person you know that you’re looking for work of a particular (or broad) type in a particular (or broad) range of settings. If you get a temporary position at a company you like, tell the boss that you’d love to keep working there. Tell the folks in your club or church what you’re looking for. Tell your neighbors. Heck, tell the mailman.

I should say at this point that, while all of this advice has worked for me, I’m cribbing this last suggestion directly from the maestro di tutti maestri of job hunting, Richard Bolles. One of the central pieces of advice Bolles gives in his multi-million-selling What Color Is Your Parachute? is to tell everyone you know that you’re looking for work. “Raise your hand” in every context, whether you think it’s called for or not. Seriously, tell your barber. Tell everyone you know that you’re looking for work so that they can have the chance to help you. Don’t deny them that pleasure!

One specific way to do this that might daunt you initially: use this as your opportunity to look up old friends. Go through your old e-mail archives, your paper correspondence, and the like, and start sending messages. Get the most embarrassing part out of the way first: “I’m embarrassed that it’s only now that I’m getting in touch. I lost my job a couple of weeks ago, and I’m using this time to look up old friends . . .” Then talk about the good things that have happened in your life since you last spoke with them. Leave them with just a sentence about how you’d like to catch up with them–if it’s true that you would–and then wish them well. You might be surprised at how many e-mails like this elicit enthusiastic answers.

For now, go to Bolles’s site, read what’s there, lay hands on a copy of Parachute, and then get back to me.

Next time: How to share your job search with people you don’t know through a little practice we call “networking.”

Notes on job-hunting: Fight cynicism.

1 March 2006

Covered in the first installment:
Rule #1. It’s not over until you win.
Rule #2. Get help.

Rule #3. Fight cynicism at every turn. The one thing above all others that will undermine your adherence to Rule #1 is the cynicism that often arises during a job search. If you’ve been in the working world for a while, you know the value you bring through your work. It doesn’t matter if you wait tables or edit books or build bookcases: you have skills that you have employed successfully in the past, you have a will to work, . . . and yet no one returns your calls. After enough repetition of this, you can become convinced that the deck is stacked against you.

This may be tougher the longer you’ve been working. You have more years of evidence that you’re worth something. You have more skills that have been useful in the past. If it’s been a long time since you were on the work market, you may have rusty job-hunting skills. And you may also face the bias–sometimes real, sometimes only perceived–that some employers hold against older workers.

Then again, it’s no picnic if you’re looking for your first job out of school, either. Maybe you haven’t looked for a “real” job before. You might not have built up good connections or an impressive resume yet. It’s easy to wonder at that point what the use was for all that fancy education.

But here’s the fact that you need to keep in mind, with as much clarity as any Stoic philosopher or Zen master: The market isn’t about you. It doesn’t care about you, and it doesn’t need to care about you. It is disembodied and incapable of caring. I’m not saying that this is a good or a bad thing in itself. Maybe in an ideal world, we would get to conduct our careers in a community that already knows us. We wouldn’t face the alienation of applications to previously unknown employers and of interviews with strangers. (This is an excellent reason to build your personal network before you need it, a topic I’ll explore in a later installment.) But that’s not the world we live in.

The good news is that the market can’t go out of its way to frustrate you, either. Maybe that sounds obvious, but exasperated job hunters often end up talking about the job-hunting experience as though the world is out to get them. It’s not out to get you; the process of landing a job can be hard, but the difficulty is not aimed at you personally. That might seem like a trivial observation , but it’s worth keeping in the back of your mind.

Keep this at the front of your mind: for as long as you’re looking for a job, your full-time job is to work like a farmer. Get up early, work all day. Sow and cultivate steadily until the harvest comes in. Your job isn’t over until the harvest comes in–that is, until you land the job you’re looking for.

Farmers often bring in extra hands to help them, especially at key times in the growing cycle. In the prior installment of this series, I said you should seek out those who can help you with the skills necessary to hunt for a job effectively. But you should also reach out to your friends and loved ones for help with the emotional tasks of keeping your spirits up, fighting cynicism, and returning day after day to the work of finding new work. You must be implacable in your efforts, and this will be much easier if you have a squad of cheerleaders rooting you on.

Rule #4. Improve something. This is the greatest antidote to cynicism. Recruiting cheerleaders will help you, as will acknowledging market reality. But you have to live with the doubts and fears inside you. My own experience tells me that when I work hard toward a clear purpose, I feel good inside. When I don’t work hard or toward a clear purpose, I don’t feel good. Success or failure in terms of outcome is not as important to my sense of well-being as the feeling of achievement that comes when I do my level best. Trying hard feels good.

Trying hard feels twice as good when the effort is aimed at bringing beneficial change into your life. When you can, this ought to mean making big changes to big things. I think that during a job hunt is the perfect time to re-tool your habits. Now would be a great time to lose weight, to take up running, or to give up TV and start learning a foreign language. You could learn a new academic subject. It would be the perfect time to shift the way you organize your time and your stuff. But even if you’re not ready, or somehow not able, to make big changes to big things, you can always make small changes to small things. Go over your resume and improve the format. Read a good blog or two about career-building strategies. Go through your e-mail archives and get in touch with two old friends you haven’t talked to in a while. Even better, send two e-mails before lunch and two after lunch. But no matter what, bring some form of beneficial change to some thing in your life.

Whatever you do, don’t sit on your butt waiting for the world to come to you. You’ve got to pick up the phone, fire up the e-mail, or walk out the door to engage the world on its own turf. You’ll feel better about yourself–and not just incidentally, you’ll make yourself much more likely to land a good job sooner.

Next time: Keeping up your energy level.

Considering grad school? Read these.

26 February 2006

Some books I have found useful:

If you’re only going to read one of these, make it the Peters book, which is pragmatic in the extreme. If you can read two, read Peters and Verba. But the most useful thing I’ve found is this free e-book from Prof. Phil Agre of UCLA:

Networking on the Network: A Guide to Professional Skills for Ph.D. Students

It’s sad but true that graduate students–a slice of the population loaded with really smart people–are often very dumb when it comes to the nuts and bolts of putting together a successful career. Yes, it’s scholarship, so in one sense it ought to be about ideas and hard work and new discoveries. But it’s also an industry, so common-sense careerism will always have a place–a legitimate place. Grad students, no matter how brilliant, ignore this advice at their peril.

Notes on job-hunting: It’s not over until you win.

25 February 2006

[This is part one in a series. Part two is here.]

Several friends of mine are looking for work these days. Some are without a job, some are leaving jobs, some are in jobs they hate. All have the same objective: something better than this. If this sounds familiar to you, keep reading.

The common thread among most of these job-seekers is that they don’t have a bone in their body oriented toward sales. They’re writers, artists, thinkers–damn smart ones, too–but they are not self-promoters, or at least not natural self-promoters. One of the toughest things about the process of finding a new job is that it asks people like this to turn into super-sellers for as long as it takes to land something new. In and of itself, this stinks. It’s one of those tough realities of life that you just have to face and surmount as serenely as you can. The good news, though, is that you’re selling something great: you!

Starting with this post, I’m going to offer some guidelines about how to find better work. These tips are not hypothetical. I have used them, and they work. In fact, they are working for me now–even though I have no plans to leave my company–because they are helping me redefine my working role. I hope they are helpful to you. Please share your own best career-improvement tips in the comments section.

Rule #1. It’s not over until you win. This is the cardinal rule, the unbreakable rule for successful career change. Finding a new job or reaching a level of enduring satisfaction in your career is not something you snap your fingers to achieve. The biggest mistake that I’ve made in my own job searches, and by far the biggest mistake that I’ve seen others make, is to form in advance some sort of mental picture about a “reasonable” amount of time and effort to put into the search. Abandon that illusion! There is no “reasonable” amount of time. If you have to temp for six months while you find or create the right position, so be it. If it’s year, it’s a year. It all depends on who you are, where you are in your career, and what you’re trying to do now.

Note that seemingly long delays in finding the right job may have nothing to do with you. The job market is notorious for the friction it contains. Information doesn’t flow freely. Employers seeking new workers and workers seeking new employers often aren’t able to find each other. There might be a great job waiting for you in a great department at a great company . . . except that the company’s H.R. department can’t get its act together. The list could go on, but my point is this: Don’t beat yourself up over the market or the opportunities that fail to materialize for you. Don’t indulge your fantasies of how the market should work. Just deal with it as it is, frictions and all.

So how do you push ahead to winning? Above all, define your outcomes in advance: Are you just looking to pay the rent for now? Do you want a great job that pays at least $N per year? Do you seek to exercise benevolent global hegemony? Or maybe you just want an honorable, low-stress, decent day job so you can write poetry evenings and weekends? Any one of these goals is fine. In fact, you ought to have more than one: the immediate need to fill now (sanity, rent money), a bigger goal for a year from now ($N per year, maybe a promotion), and a long-term ideal for where you’re headed in the future (making a living writing poetry, becoming a partner in your firm, retiring at age 50). But whatever you do, write down your goals in advance of your job search. If you don’t know what winning looks like, you can’t figure out what to do to get there.

Now comes the hard part: Acknowledge the reality that your efforts must be open-ended until you reach your goal. It’s not a matter of sending out a hundred resumes (not a great strategy anyway, according to many experts) and waiting. It’s not a matter of looking really hard for a week and then waiting. It’s not a matter of contacting ten friends and then waiting. There is no waiting. You work full-time until you achieve your goal–at which point, you’ll switch over to working full-time at your new job. The point is that the amount of your work doesn’t change just because you don’t have an employer right now: you keep putting in full days. In fact, you may have to work overtime if you’re hunting for a new job at the same time that you’re working at an old one. Don’t complain to me about it: I’m just describing the weather of the working world.

This is going to mean more work than you want to do. It’s going to mean more grief than you think is reasonable to sustain. It could mean dozens or scores or hundreds of e-mails, resumes, and so on that don’t go anywhere. Get Zen with it: it’s just so. But you don’t have to do it alone! Because you’re going to . . .

Rule #2. Get help. You need skillz, baby. Many people stumble through job-hunting because they think they know what’s involved with it: you send out resumes, you fill out applications, you wait for a call. But this conventional wisdom for job hunting is actually no wisdom at all. In fact, the traditional way of job-hunting is a pretty lousy way to land a job you want.

Fortunately, what with this new “Internet” thing to go along with the old “public library” thing, help is close at hand. A great place to start is David Lorenzo’s Career Intensity blog, which is connected to his forthcoming book of the same title. Even though I’m not looking for a job, I check it out every day for great tips on how to create better situations for myself in the working world. Even if you don’t share the level of emotional “intensity” Lorenzo is talking about, you can benefit from his posts, which blend his own rich experience with a lot of sound common sense. Best of all, he’s full of energy and often posts several times per day.

Lorenzo and I are both regular readers of Keith Ferrazzi, the go-to guy for business networking. Ferrazzi (whom I’ve written about before) hates the kind of backslapping that gives “networking” a bad name; he’s all about building real human relationships in a business context. His blog and book are well worth your time.

Finally, there’s a good reason What Color is Your Parachute? has sold so many copies: it works. Dick Bolles offers gentle advice–sometimes abstract, sometimes quite specific–for those seeking change in their careers. You won’t get the intensity or drive embodied in Lorenzo’s or Ferrazzi’s work, but you will find much of value on his site.

In the next installment of this series, I’ll address cynicism–the biggest enemy of any effective job search.