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
- 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.
We’re surrounded by people who are busy getting their ducks in a row, waiting for just the right moment…Getting your ducks in a row is a fine thing to do. But deciding what you are you going to do with that duck is a far more important issue.
In a long distance race, everyone gets tired. The winner is the runner who figures out where to put the tired, figures out how to store it away until after the race is over. Sure, he’s tired. Everyone is. That’s not the point. The point is to run.
Same thing is true for shipping, I think. Everyone is afraid. Where do you put the fear?”
The paradox of our time is that the instincts that kept us safe in the day of the saber tooth tiger and General Motors are precisely the instincts that will turn us into road kill in a faster than fast internet-fueled era.
The resistance is waiting. Fight it. Ship.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I have been unemployed for almost five years now. Thanks to the visa restrictions I am still not eligible to work for pay. But, something amazing happened in this period when I was living one of my worst fears, which is unemployment.
I got an opportunity, a pro bono gig to practice my skills, cultivate new skills, and leverage my experience and education. I also, started reading and writing avidly and created a body of work in the form of four blogs. Not only that, I had an opportunity to master the art of homemaking where I optimized and automated everything in such a way that even if I start working full-time tomorrow, things are still going to be the same at home.
I was able to do all these only because I wanted to be useful to people around me. I didn’t let my sorrow of unemployment and lack of an income affect my ability to do work that matters. There’s magic in voluntarily enrolling yourself in serving others to help them accomplish their dreams. Embrace pro bono.
It’s worth taking a look at the supposed indignities of “serving” someone else. If you’re going to be the big deal you think you are going to be, isn’t this a rather trivial temporary imposition?
When you are just starting out, we can be sure of a few fundamental realities: 1) You’re not nearly as good or as important as you think you are; 2) you have an attitude that needs to be readjusted; 3) most of what you think you know or most of what you learned in books or in school is out of date or wrong.
There’s one fabulous way to work all that out of your system: attach yourself to people and organizations who are already successful and subsume your identity into theirs and move both forward simultaneously. It’s certainly more glamorous to pursue your own glory — though hardly as effective. Obeisance is the way forward.
This method is called the canvas strategy and it can actually, provide you with a competitive edge in the job market. Here’s how.
Find canvases for other people to paint on. Be an anteambulo. Clear the path for the people above you and you will eventually create a path for yourself.
Remember that anteambulo means clearing the path — finding the direction someone already intended to head and helping them pack, freeing them up to focus on their strengths. In fact, making things better rather than simply looking as if you are.
That’s the other effect of this attitude: it reduces your ego at a critical time in your career, letting you absorb everything you can without the obstructions that block others’ vision and progress.
As Simon Sinek mentioned in his recently went viral talk of Millennials, ‘only service can save us‘. The canvas strategy advocates the same. We must prioritize work and creative expression over credit.
Imagine if, for every person you met, you thought of some way to help them, something you could do for them? And you looked at it in a way that entirely benefited them and not you. The cumulative effect this would have over time would be profound: You’d learn a great deal by solving diverse problems. You’d develop a reputation for being indispensable. You’d have countless new relationships. You’d have an enormous bank of favors to call upon down the road.
That’s what the canvas strategy is about — helping yourself by helping others. Making a concerted effort to trade your short-term gratification for a longer-term payoff.
Whereas everyone else wants to get credit and be “respected,” you can forget credit. You can forget it so hard that you’re glad when others get it instead of you — that was your aim, after all. Let the others take their credit on credit, while you defer and earn interest on the principal.
Here are some of the ways you can implement the canvas strategy in your work and personal life.
1) Find new trains of thought to hand over for them to explore. Track down angles and contradictions and analogies that they can use. Ex: I was reading the biography of ______, I think you should look at it because there may be something you can do with the imagery.
2) Find outlets, people, associations, and connections. Cross wires to create new sparks. Ex: I know _________, and I think you two should talk. Have you thought about meeting ____?
3) Find inefficiencies and waste and redundancies. Identify leaks and patches to free up resources for new areas. Ex: You don’t need to do ___________ anymore, I have an idea for improving the process, let me try it so you can worry about something else.
Discover opportunities to promote their creativity, find outlets and people for collaboration, and eliminate distractions that hinder their progress and focus. It is a rewarding and infinitely scalable power strategy.
Here’s the best part of this strategy – you can start whenever you want without waiting for anybody’s permission irrespective of your age limit, income level, and circumstances. You will also, be able to shed your ego and see things that others are unable to see.
The canvas strategy is there for you at any time. There is no expiration date on it either. It’s one of the few that age does not limit — on either side, young or old. You can start at any time — before you have a job, before you’re hired and while you’re doing something else, or if you’re starting something new or find yourself inside an organization without strong allies or support. You may even find that there’s no reason to ever stop doing it, even once you’ve graduated to heading your own projects.
Let it become natural and permanent; let others apply it to you while you’re too busy applying it to those above you. Because if you pick up this mantle once, you’ll see what most people’s egos prevent them from appreciating: the person who clears the path ultimately controls its direction, just as the canvas shapes the painting.
These are the three essential things that we must seek out to thrive and succeed in the coming decades. Here’s why.
The industrial age is gone and hence, the skills that were relevant at that age such as compliance, approvals, waiting for instructions and being a cog in the machine is also, gone.
Now, in the new connection economy, we don’t need people to comply. Instead, we need them to lead and make art that might not work. Competence is no longer a scarce commodity in the new connected world and so is perfectionism. What we need, instead, is art, which is not perfect, involves risk, and is not for everyone.
Similarly, leadership, as a skill, was a luxury in the past for an average person. That is, from an evolutionary perspective, the amygdala or the lizard brain prevented us from taking the lead in anything we do as leading involved noncompliance and breaking the rules that landed us in trouble.