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.

Safety zone vs. comfort zone

Seth Godin, in his book, Linchpin, talks about the safety zone and comfort zone. More often than not we tend to mistake the comfort zone for the safety zone. It used to true, however, that doesn’t mean it will always be true.

This makes a great case for why emotional labor is what we are being paid for in today’s workplace. Even though emotional labor makes us feel uncomfortable, it’s the safest way to still have a paid job and make a difference.

All creatures need a shortcut because we don’t have time to reevaluate the safety of everything. So, in order to succeed, particularly for human beings, we need to build a comfort zone that matches the safety zone. 
 
Now, things that we feel comfortable aren’t safe anymore as they are going to make us unemployed. Whereas the things that are going to make us feel uncomfortable are actually safe. So, the safest thing we can do is to take a risk or whatever that feels like a risk and the riskiest thing we can do is to play it safe. 
Now, we get paid for emotional labor. If what you did today wasn’t hard then you probably didn’t create enough value because you probably didn’t expose yourself to enough risk and fear. If you have a job where someone is telling you exactly what to do they can find someone cheaper than you to do it.
If you are standing still and the world is moving, you are actually losing ground.
I am sure none of us are ready to embrace this huge shift in work culture but, we can be prepared for it. In today’s world of work, since competence is overrated, do not expect for a map that gives you step-by-step instructions, instead embrace the compass to find the passion for creating something that connects and engages in new ways. 

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.

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.