Scale and care

It’s hard to hand wash and take care of every piece of cloth we own if our wardrobe is cluttered with too many outfits.
It’s hard to enjoy a toy when we have too many toys to play with.
It’s hard to enjoy one particular dish when we are at an all-you-can-eat buffet.
It’s hard to pay attention to a friend when we have too many acquaintances.
It’s hard to care about a particular work when we pursue multiple interests.
It’s hard to take care of every members’ need if we live in a joint family or have a big family.
It’s hard to take care of every employees’ need if we own a large organization with so many employees.
Scaling up feels like a right choice since we can go broader, but, we can only care when we go deeper. We feel fulfilled only when we care.
When in doubt, go small.

On doing less but better

Sometimes, we need to do less for doing more. We should stop being everything to everyone and instead focus on our core strengths in both business and life to improve our work life and sanity.
By focussing on a few things, we could do productive things instead of merely keep ourselves busy.
Most organizations, from tiny to huge, operate from the same perspective. As you add employees, there’s pressure to keep everyone occupied, to be busy. Of course, once you’re busy, there’s a tremendous need to hire even more people, which continues the cycle.
When your overhead plummets, the pressure to take on the wrong jobs with the wrong staff disappears. Youʼre free to pick the projects that make you happy.
During the placement season in my undergrad, I hardly gave any thought as to what kind of work and what kind of firm I wanted to work in. Instead, I just gave in to the very first job offer I received. It did pay me well and kept me busy but, I hardly did any productive work. It was partly because my firm was a large-sized one and also, because of my lack of clarity of goals.
How many newly-minted college grads take the first job thatʼs “good enough?” A good enough job gets you busy right away, but it also puts you on a path to a lifetime of good enough jobs. Investing (not spending, investing) a month or a year in high-profile internships could change your career forever.
Consider the architect who designs just a few major buildings a year. Obviously, he has to dig deep to do work of a high enough quality to earn these commissions. But by not cluttering his life and his reputation with a string of low-budget boring projects, he actually increases his chances of getting great projects in the future.
We canʼt have everything. Weʼve tried and it doesnʼt work. What weʼve discovered, though, is that leaving off that last business project not only makes our profits go up, it also can dramatically improve the rest of our life.
The opposite of “more” is not “less.” If we care enough, the opposite of more is better.

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.

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.

The common thread

The common thread that ties most of Seth Godin’s, Simon Sinek’s, and Ryan Holidays’ works is: be less and do more. Here are some recurring themes that we can find in their body of work.

1. Choose to play the infinite game where you outsmart yourself every single day.
2. There’s no difference between your personal and professional life. The reason your friends like you is the same reason your colleagues like you.
3. Be less, do more. Shed your ego.
4. Be totally present.
5. Seek out the difficult, unglamorous work that nobody wants to do. They are rare and hence, valuable and puts you in the infinite game automatically where there’s no competition. Finite games have time and player limits. Cal Newport also, emphasizes the same when he mentions people who have fulfilling careers have one thing in common – their work by nature is rare and valuable.

The grunt work privilege

One of the staff members at the nonprofit I work always find opportunities to make herself useful to others. She goes over and beyond her position in the organization and just focusses on helping others out as much as she can. I consider her as one of my role models in my career history.

While there are people like her, there are also, people in my organization that feels they are ‘overqualified‘ to do certain kind of work. I have seen this attitude in people especially doing data entry jobs. The attrition rate has been high for these roles in my organization.

When people initially apply for such kind of functions, they take pride in the fact that they are doing it for a ‘good cause.’ However, in a few months’ time, the cause and mission go out of the window as the repetitiveness of the task becomes more prominent. People, especially those with good degrees and qualifications, no longer want to do such repeated, monotonous tasks and ask for challenging tasks.

However, when they are handed over a challenging task, they fail to take accountability for it. It’s a difficult task, so there’s, of course, going to be a certain amount of risk involved. People simply want to claim the work without actually doing the work. This is one of the trends that I have been seeing in today’s youngsters and that unfortunately, includes people of my age group as well.

It’s a common attitude that transcends generations and societies. The angry, unappreciated genius is forced to do stuff she doesn’t like, for people she doesn’t respect, as she makes her way in the world. How dare they force me to grovel like this! The injustice! The waste!

We see it in recent lawsuits in which interns sue their employers for pay. We see kids more willing to live at home with their parents than to submit to something they’re “overqualified” to work for. We see it in an inability to meet anyone else on their terms, an unwillingness to take a step back to potentially take several steps forward. I will not let them get one over on me. I’d rather we both have nothing instead.

When someone gets his first job or joins a new organization, he’s often given this advice: Make other people look good, and you will do well. Keep your head down, they say, and serve your boss. Naturally, this is not what the kid who was chosen over all the other children for the position wants to hear. It’s not what a Harvard grad expects — after all, they got that degree precisely to avoid this supposed indignity.

I have seen this attitude even in my closest friends’ circle. I have friends who had spent an enormous amount of money to get an American degree only to avoid the indignity of particular kind of jobs. When I was working in the IT sector in India, I had colleagues who took pride in being a part of ‘development’ work and looked down upon people who were a part of testing and application support groups. Eventually, what happened was the testing, and support guys landed several onsite opportunities for some real global clients. Similarly, I have seen some of my educated female friends, who had outsourced their household chores and childcare because they wanted to focus more on shopping, watching sitcoms on TV, and attending kitty parties and not because they had to look after their aging parents and do philanthropic work.

This is ego at work. When we are ruled by our egos arising out of the labels that we associate ourselves such as educated and highly qualified we fail to distinguish between what is work that matters and what is not.

There’s a scarcity to do repetitive, monotonous work. It’s just like how, in India, there’s a shortage of maids for household help since more people have started going to school to get degrees and seeking for greener pastures in the name of white-collar corporate jobs.

The scarcity of anything always creates value. My prediction is as more people go after ’challenging’ work, the market is going to pay more for the repetitive tasks that are still important to run a business or an institution.

So, the next time when you say ’no’ to a role just because it’s repetitive and doesn’t feed your ego and pride, think twice.

He thrived on what was considered grunt work, asked for it and strove to become the best at precisely what others thought they were too good for.

Be quiet, work hard, and stay healthy. It’s not ambition or skill that is going to set you apart. What will set you apart, what is rare, is humility, diligence, and self-awareness.

Greatness comes from humble beginnings; it comes from grunt work. It means you’re the least important person in the room – until you change that with results. Be lesser, do more.

Hope we realize our egos sooner before it’s too late.