How we do anything is how we do everything: On working right

More often than not, we are obsessed with finding the right line of work and we forget the most important part, which is working right. When we hate our jobs, we try to switch to a different job or even a different career path but, we do not tend to think of the possibility of us working in the right manner irrespective of the job we have. 
In his book, Deep Work, Cal Newport writes a story about a Rabbi who wakes up early every single day to master Judaism. With rigorous self-discipline over the years, the Rabbi managed to gain a lot of knowledge on Judaism. A layman would ask what is the use of this knowledge. However, it’s not the knowledge per se that’s important it’s the effort that went in order to acquire that much knowledge that matters and the years of persisting a processWhy? Because, how we do anything is how we do everything
 
What we do doesn’t matter but, why we do matters. What we do is simply a reflection of the times we live in (for example, if Vincent Van Gogh was born today, he wouldn’t have become an impressionist painter) but, why we do something goes deeper into our own values and belief systems. It’s a direct reflection of who we are. We just happen to do the ‘whats’ because our ‘whys’ need an expression.
In her book, Mindset, Carol Dweck emphasizes the very same idea by bringing in the theory of growth mindset where effort is given more importance than talent and ability. Practice and hard work are the key components of a growth mindset. 
The magic happens when we obsess about the process and not the outcome (a trait of the craftsman mindset). That’s when the transferable skills are formed. Once we form the transferable skills we can apply them in any domain we want to excel. Success would then be a byproduct. We keep track of all the wrong, superficial things. We mistake the byproduct for the actual effect and that’s why there are only a few successful people in this world.
 
Similarly, Tim Ferris in one of his keynote talks about the DSS strategy for learning anything. This strategy is universal and it validates the point of how we do anything is how we do everything. 
 
 
Whatever is rightly done, however humble, is noble. (Quid’s recte factum quamvis humile praeclarum.) —Sir Henry Royce

Sometimes, on the road to where we are going or where we want to be, we have to do things that we’d rather not do. Often when we are just starting out, our first jobs “introduce us to the broom,” as Andrew Carnegie famously put it. There’s nothing shameful about sweeping. It’s just another opportunity to excel—and to learn.

But we are always so busy thinking about the future, we don’t take enough pride in the tasks we are given right now. Too often we phone it in, cash our check, and dream of some higher station in life. Or we think, This is just a job, it isn’t who I am, it doesn’t matter.

This is foolishness.

Everything we do matters—whether it’s making smoothies to save up money or studying for the bar—even after we’ve already achieved the success we sought. Everything is a chance to do and be our best. Only self-absorbed assholes think they are too good for whatever their current station requires.

Wherever we are, whatever we’re doing and wherever we are going, we owe it to ourselves, to our art, to the world to do it well. That’s our primary duty. And our obligation. When action is our priority, vanity falls away.

 

An artist is given many different canvases and commissions in their lifetime, and what matters is that they treat each one as a priority. Whether it’s the most glamorous or highest paying is irrelevant. Each project matters, and the only degrading part is giving less than one is capable of giving.
 
We will be and do many things in our lives. Some are prestigious, some are onerous, none are beneath us. To whatever we face, our job is to respond with:
  • hard work
  • honesty
  • helping others as best we can

We should never have to ask ourselves, But what am I supposed to do now? Because we know the answer: our job.

 

Duty is beautiful, and inspiring and empowering. Because all we need to do is those three little duties—to try hard, to be honest, and to help others and ourselves. That’s all that’s been asked of us. No more and no less. Sure, the goal is important. But never forget that each individual instance matters, too—each is a snapshot of the whole. The whole isn’t certain, only the instances.
How you do anything is how you can do everything. We can always act right.
P.S: I did a syntopical reading/listening of the following people’s body of work (books, interviews, talks). The idea of why working right always triumphs finding the right work is a common theme. 
1. Cal Newport
2. Ryan Holiday
3. Carol S. Dweck
4. Simon Sinek
5. Tim Ferris
6. Seth Godin
7. Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev

Process vs. events

Anything that’s worth doing takes a long time. The outcomes that we are proud of are results of processes we followed over time. They are not events.
Therefore, success is a process and not an event. The process over the years gives birth to an outcome, which we mistakenly see it as an event. The truth is the efforts or the process we have been following over the years eventually catches up.
This theory applies to everything in life. The relationships we bothered to care about when things were rough pays off over time in the form of real friendships. The music lessons and practice sessions we attended when we didn’t feel like going and wanted to play video games instead, pays off over time making us good musicians. All the early morning runs we went for when the whole world was sleeping and when we didn’t feel like going, pays off in the long-term in the form of an athletic body. All the healthy food habits we cultivated by saying ’no’ to processed food and beverages over time pays off in the shape of a great body, great skin, and excellent health.
Processes eventually catch up. If we are unhappy with the outcome, chances are it’s a result of bad habits and behaviors over a long time.
What this means is that, if we want to become the kind of person we could be proud of five years from now, we need to start today and persist until we see the intended results. We often overestimate what we can achieve in a year and underestimate what we can accomplish in five.

What does student debt, a workforce talent squeeze, & disruptive innovation have in common?

While the world and the workplace are adapting and innovating at a lightning pace, the higher education system is not able to keep up. The current higher education system is one-size-fits-all, slow, and expensive. As a result, it puts pressure on companies to provide on-the-job training, increasing the cost to the company, while many employers no longer need any employees with higher degrees.

What we need is a customized education program that caters to individual needs based on competencies and interests. Just like how we have Software as a Service, it’s time we had higher Education as a Service.

Education as a Service should unbundle degree programs and curriculum. It cannot be the same for everyone; every student has different needs. Students should assess their current competencies, the skills required to get the job of their choice and work with the higher education organization on the resulting gap. All students should be able to earn credits quickly for existing knowledge and engage in deeper learning with new information valued in today’s corporate workplace. The class times become variable, set at a student’s pace to master the required skills. If done right, the student is a “customer for life” and continues to learn new competencies as their workforce evolves and demands it.

The content offered should regularly be updated, just like Software as a Service offerings, with a real-time connection with the corporate world and a perspective to train people to be successful in the face of uncertain situations. The offerings should teach agility and prepare the students for the constant changes they will face in the workforce. The offerings should also pair related content, like social skills and other soft skills to provide an education that is relevant today and will be of interest in dealing with unforeseen events in the future.

So, how is this different from the already existing traditional e-learning MOOC courses?

When learning is consumed in a completely self-driven and self-paced fashion, the retention and overall success rate are low. This is shown with the low completion rates for MOOC courses.

Success rates and retention improve when there is a social and collaborative component aligned to the student. This can be as simple as chatting with other students in a forum or other peer to peer learning techniques, or it can be via complementary live webcasts or virtual one-on-one office hours with an instructor.

Education as a Service needs to take the concept of MOOC and extend it into higher education by providing the content along with the social and collaborative aspects for increasing retention and success.

Personal Knowledge Management Systems for knowledge workers

All these while I have been religiously blogging regularly without even knowing the official terminology of the entire process. Only recently, I came to know that it’s called Personal Knowledge Management (PKM) system.

A daily blog driven by your curiosity can do wonders in the connection economy. In a connected and social world, mere knowledge is not valuable. What is valuable is whether we can make sense of the knowledge. That’s what PKM enables.

Personal knowledge management (PKM) is a collection of processes that a person uses to gather, classify, store, search, retrieve, and share knowledge in their daily activities (Grundspenkis 2007) and the way in which these processes support work activities (Wright 2005).

 

pkm-2016

 

Instead of digesting any random information that comes our way, we deliberately seek out information and knowledge about things that are naturally driven by our curiosity through the process of gathering. Once we gather the necessary information, we make sense of it by curating and then, share it with others in the form of blogs, videos, podcasts, ebooks, and presentation slides. Using our inbuilt ‘crap detectors,’ we carefully eliminate information that we are not curious about.

What an opportunity the internet has provided us. We are all writers, authors, teachers, and artists in our right now. We didn’t have this luxury in the industrial era, though. Only a privileged few had access to information, and they carefully curated ‘just enough information to survive’ and fed us in the form of textbooks and syllabus in schools so that we can be obedient factory workers. They shunned our natural human curiosity and made us all into obedient trained assembly line workers. But, not anymore.

Now, we have the privilege to become thought leaders and influencers in the world we seek to serve. We can thrive the way we are meant to succeed in this world using the tools that are available to us. Let’s not use them to watch more cat videos.

The metric black hole in knowledge work

I was listening to the podcast on Deep Work by Cal Newport the other day when I got to know the concept of metric black hole in knowledge work.

The metric black hole is that there’s no established metric in knowledge work that measures adverse impacts of shallow work such as regularly checking emails and social media feeds and that weighs the benefits of deep work such as a constant focus on building something long-lasting. As a result, companies generally, tend to opt for and emphasize on the more convenient option, which is the shallow work.

This is completely contradictory to why organizations recruit knowledge workers in the first place. We recruit knowledge workers for the cognitive capital they bring in and by creating an environment where answering emails and attending back-to-back meetings is given more priority over deep work, we are not capitalizing on the rare and valuable skills of knowledge workers.

This could be a reason why millennials get bored and frustrated with their work in a short span of time and it need not be due to the sense of entitlement that they have as commonly accused.

So, what can we do about it? I would say, the employees must demand more productive environments if they think the existing conditions are not enabling them to perform at their fullest cognitive capability. They must explain the concept of deep work and also, suggest possible solutions that improve the working conditions. The employer must be receptive enough to understand the ideas and suggestions from the employees and be brave enough to make the change for a better working environment.

Psychological traits of work

Our work life goes way beyond mere livelihood. It can impact our identities for good and for worse. I wish I had known this earlier when I was in college but, it’s better late than never.

When we meet new people, we’re tempted to ask: ‘what do you do?’ We’re picking up on the idea that our identity is very linked to our daily tasks. But the way the question is answered tends to lock on to the practical externals of our jobs.

However, what’s more revealing, but more elusive, are the psychological requirements and consequences of jobs – what mindsets a job breeds, what doing the job requires of your inner life, how it expands us and (crucially) limits us.

Once we are aware of this fact, we can acknowledge it and process it properly to decide the actions we need to take to become a person we are proud of becoming.

Being in a particular psychological environment every day for years has a pretty significant impact on our habits of mind. It influences what we assume other people are like, it forms our view of life and gradually shapes who we are. The psychology inculcated by the work we do doesn’t stay at work. We carry it with us into the rest of our lives.

We find it much harder to notice what has happened in our case, because – of course – our outlook feels natural to us, though it is anything but. It may take an encounter with an alien (in the shape of someone from a very different field) to get us to notice.

Identifying the psychological traits of your work and personal life will guide you to take necessary actions to make yourself a more rounded individual.

We’re broadly aware that the way people learn to think at work can be traced in their domestic and social character.

Work can be very useful for people. The mentality fostered at work might be making up for aspects of the self that didn’t get properly developed before.

But work can narrow our characters too. When a particular range of issues and ways of thinking become entrenched, it means that others start to feel awkward and even threatening.

There’s a fundamental question we might ask ourselves: in what ways might my character has been shaped (for better or worse) by my work (just as it is important to grasp how one has been shaped by childhood)? There’s a poignant autobiographical question: if I’d done a different job, would I have been a different person? And the answer must be yes. Contained within other career paths are other plausible versions of oneself – which, if contemplated, reveal significant, but currently undeveloped, elements of one’s character. It gives rise to the most tricky of questions: where are those other bits of me?

Personally, I can say that I have become a much better person after I have taken up a pro bono project in a nonprofit organization. It has made me more generous and helped me focus on work for work’s sake and not for any extrinsic benefits such as pay, or popularity.
Being aware of the psychological traits of our jobs will make us more empathetic to people for who they are.

Keeping in mind how work shapes a person means we should be slower to blame other people for the way they are. Perhaps it is their job, not ‘them’ that has made them as they are – that has made them so nervous, angry, or boring. It’s the employment environment we should blame, not them. They might have been other people. Our identities are vulnerable to our jobs.

Deliberate practice in knowledge work

Lately, many of my millennial friends that are knowledge workers are finding challenges outside of work such as learning to play a musical instrument, training for a marathon and so on because they wanted to push beyond their existing capabilities. For some reason, they have already assumed that there’s no way they can find something challenging at the workplace and it had to be outside of work.

My theory for this relatively recent phenomenon is it’s difficult to define what deliberate practice is in knowledge work. Knowledge work by its very nature can never be challenging enough for long. There’s always a technology or tool in the making that is right around the corner, which is going to further reduce the human effort in performing a task. What is challenging at work today will no longer be a challenge six months later. No wonder, Millennials are frustrated. Every effort they put in is being replaced by a machine or a robot in no time, and the people feel useless. On the other hand, when it comes to playing a musical instrument or athletic training, you get a chance to stretch your human or manual skills to master techniques thereby maintaining a challenge at every level.

In short, knowledge work is one of those fields (others being freelance writing, entrepreneurship, or college) that does not have a tradition of performance-optimization

For instance, imagine you are working out in the gym. Once you can lift 20 lbs of weight, you can focus on lifting 30 pounds of weight next. What is happening here is once you reach a comfort level you know where exactly your next discomfort zone exists and can deliberately practice it. As a result, you will feel like you are improving and making progress and it gives you immense fulfillment as you develop your competence regarding muscle power. On the other hand, if you are a programmer or a coder, once you master a coding language you do not know where your next discomfort zone exists unless you notice where your fear lies. If you want to break the existing rules and try something new that could be a challenge. However, it’s hard to quantify your discomfort zone here. That is, you cannot go from typing ten lines of code/minute to typing 20 lines of code/minute as it is not a valuable skill and nobody is going to pay you more for improving competence at this level.

Therefore, it becomes necessary to articulate and lay down the definition of deliberate practice in knowledge work.

Deliberate practice (DP) in knowledge work is any particular exercise that’s designed to stretch your ability, a little bit beyond your current capability.

Knowledge workers are bad at working. Unlike every other skilled labor class in the history of skilled labor, we lack a culture of systematic improvement. If you’re a professional chess player, you’ll spend thousands of hours dissecting the games of better players. If you’re a promising young violin player, you’ll attend programs like Meadowmount’s brutal 7-week crash course, where you’ll learn how to wring every last drop of value from your practicing. If you’re a veteran knowledge worker, you’ll spend most of your day answering e-mail.

A lack of clarity of DP in knowledge work is one of the biggest reasons knowledge workers end up doing shallow work. However, this very lack of clarity is an amazing opportunity to excel and beat your competition. Here’s why.

The techniques of deliberate practice are most applicable to “highly developed fields” such as chess, sports, and musical performance in which the rules of the domain are well established and passed on from generation to generation. The principles of deliberate practice do not work nearly as well for professions in which there is “little or no direct competition, such as gardening and other hobbies”, and “many of the jobs in today’s workplace– business manager, teacher, electrician, engineer, consultant, and so on.”

Deliberate practice is really important for fields such as chess and instrumental performance because they rely on consistently replicable behaviors that must be repeated over and over again. But not all domains of human achievement rely on consistently replicable behaviors. For most creative domains, the goals and ways of achieving success are constantly changing, and consistently replicable behaviors are in fact detrimental to success.

Artists are under constant pressure to surpass what they and others have done before, and it is precisely this pressure that drives them toward ever increasing originality. Artistic products can lose their “shock value” quickly.

If you’re in a field that has clear rules and objective measures of success — like playing chess, golf, or the violin — you can’t escape thousands of hours of DP if you want to be a star. But what if you’re in a field without these clear structures, such as knowledge work, writing, or growing a student club?

To become a grandmaster requires 5000 hours of DP. But to become a highly sought-after CRM database whiz, or to run a money-making blog, or to grow a campus organization into national recognition, would probably require much, much less.

Why? Because when it comes to DP in these latter field, your competition is sorely lacking.

Unless you’re a professional athlete or musician, your peers are likely spending zero hours on DP. Instead, they’re putting in their time, trying to accomplish the tasks handed to them in a competent and efficient fashion. Perhaps if they’re ambitious, they’ll try to come in earlier and leave later in a bid to outwork their peers.

But as with the intermediate-level chess players, this elbow-grease method can only get you so far.

Most active professionals will get better with experience until they reach an “acceptable level,” but beyond this point continued “experience in [their field] is a poor predictor of attained performance.”
 
If you integrate any amount of DP into your regular schedule, you’ll be able to punch through the acceptable-level plateau holding back your peers. And breaking through this plateau is exactly what is required to train an ability that’s both rare and valuable.

Here’s why deliberate practice is necessary for knowledge work.

The potential benefit of actually deliberately trying to stretch your skills can swap any natural abilities or differences when it comes to the type of work we see in knowledge work.

If you can adopt a culture of systematic improvement, similar to what’s common in other skilled fields, you can potentially accelerate your career far beyond your inbox-dwelling, discomfort-avoiding peers (and cultivate a passion for your livelihood in the process).

We must be careful in not falling into the trap of repetition of things we are already good at.

The key thing is doing what you already know repeatedly isn’t deliberate practice. This is a massive trap for knowledge work. After the initial stage of learning the skills for the first time, people do what they already know again and again. That doesn’t make you better. If you aren’t stretching, you are not getting any better. You need to feel that strain on a regular basis.

A reason Millennials are frustrated at their workplace is not that they are not making an ‘impact‘, it is because their work is shallow.

Knowledge workers dedicate too much time to shallow work — tasks that almost anyone, with a minimum of training, could accomplish (e-mail replies, logistical planning, tinkering with social media, and so on). This work is attractive because it’s easy, which makes us feel productive, and it’s rich in personal interaction, which we enjoy (there’s something oddly compelling about responding to a question; even if the topic is unimportant).

But this type of work is ultimately empty. We cannot find real satisfaction in efforts that are easily replicable, nor can we expect such efforts to be the foundation of a remarkable career.

One way we can resolve this problem is by signing up for more deep work challenges as suggested by Cal Newport.

We need to spend more time engaged in deep work — cognitively demanding activities that leverage our training to generate rare and valuable results, and that push our abilities to continually improve.

Deep work, if made the centerpiece of your knowledge work schedule, creates three key benefits:

1. Continuous improvement of the value of your work output.
2. An increase in the total quantity of valuable output you produce.
3. Deeper satisfaction (aka., “passion”) for your work.
A working life dedicated to deep work, in other words, is a professional life well-lived.

Deep work requires a clear image of the outcome you’re seeking and a clear understanding of why it’s valuable. A hazy goal is not enough to sustain your concentration at the needed levels.

Be specific about what success will look like and why that success is important. Keep in mind that it can take a surprising amount of research to define a real goal, so give this step the attention it requires.

Finding chunks that need a stretch, but are not so hard that you get permanently blocked, is non-trivial, but is also something that will improve with practice. Keep in mind that most knowledge workers implicitly go out of their way to avoid a feeling of stretch at all costs (because it’s uncomfortable and much less fun than replying to some more e-mails) so by seeking it out, you’ve already put yourself on a much more ambitious trajectory.

Here are some examples of deep work.

1. Having a daily blog where you express your point of view on a particular topic. Not only does this stretch your communication skills but, it also improves the act of metacognition. Over time, you will create a body of work that you are proud of.

2. Identifying your fears and resistance and using them as a compass to stretch your abilities. You can overcome these irrational fears by signing up for challenges pro bono or voluntarily.

3. Signing up for a reading challenge where you read books from other disciplines and that are a level above your current knowledge. Try to comprehend the ideas, write them down, cross-pollinate and connect the ideas or teach them to a layperson in a simple language.

Cal Newport also, suggests what DP looks like for fields that do not have a tradition of performance-optimization such as freelance writing, entrepreneurship, college, or knowledge work. 

Let me use myself, in my role as a theoretical computer scientist, as an example.  There are certain mathematical techniques that are increasingly seen as useful for the types of proofs I typically work on. What if I put aside one hour a day to systematically stretch my ability with these techniques?

I might identify a series of relevant papers of increasing complexity, and try to replicate the steps of their key theorem proofs without reading them in advance. When stuck, I might peek ahead for just enough hints to keep making progress (e.g., reading an induction hypothesis, but not the details of their inductive step).

The DP research tells me that this approach would likely generate large gains in my expertise. After a year of such deliberate study, I might even evolve into one of the experts on the topic in my community — a position that could yield tremendous benefits.

 

By piecing together a systematic approach to building a DP strategy for unconventional fields, I hope to identify an efficient path to the type of excellence that can be cashed in for remarkable rewards.