Stepping out of the frame

Author Salman Rushdie once quipped – “The only people who see the whole picture are the ones who step out of the frame.”

Our ability to step out of ourselves and observe ourselves from the wall or ceiling is core to our ability to be human. That ability to see ourselves from another point of view gives us instant perspective and the ability to separate stimulus from response.

The question, then, is how often do we step out of the frame in the course of a day or week? How often do we trigger reflection and perspective? For most of us, sleep, meditation, a walk in the outdoors, writing in a journal, taking deep breaths, running, among others, are ways to do so.

Doing most or all of these well over the course of a day aren’t an optional add on at the end of a work day. They result in step changes in productivity as perspective inspires a focus on what actually matters.

And, perhaps more important for our life and relationships, they enable us to be more in touch with our humanity.

Macro patience, micro speed

“Macro patience, micro speed,” “Strategically patient, tactically impatient,” “Impatience with actions, patience with outcomes,” are variants of the same powerful idea expressed in different ways.

They run counter to how organizations and people operate. Most folks, for example, set ambitious 1, 3, or 5 year goals that involve promotions and net worth targets. But, they don’t focus on maximizing their productivity in the here and now. Or, they expect to have a flourishing family in 5 years but don’t take the time to invest in their relationships in the present. Organizations repeat the same pattern with ambitious five year goals but questionable quarterly planning.

Hence, these maxims that are equally applicable to building an organization for the long term (think: Amazon) and our own careers. Take the time to orient around a longer term direction built on principles / things that will not change. Resolve to be very patient over the next 10-20 years as you move toward that direction.

And, then, execute with speed and impatience to maximize your learn rate in the short term. Waste little time, experiment a lot, reflect, and learn fast.

We don’t have much control over our journey in the next 20 years. But, we can choose to be all over the next 7 days.

In the long run, how we approach these weeks is all that matters.

(H/T: Gary Vee, Jeff Bezos)

3 steps to making that big career transition

When we make career transitions, we typically change one or more of the following – (1) Company, (2) Role, (3) Industry, and (4) Location. These are ordered in ascending order of difficulty with changes in location – for the majority of the folks on the planet who do not possess rich country passports – being the hardest by a distance. Most importantly, combining these factors does not simply mean adding up the difficulty – the change gets exponentially harder.

Thus, career transitions can be very hard to make. While there is something be said about experimenting in the early stages of our careers, there are benefits to being in the right (for you) location, industry, and role early. Career transitions are also hard because they require dealing with all the feelings of insecurity and inadequacy that accompanies job hunting. This is heightened if you are an immigrant as you are doing it with the weight of uncertainty about how your change will work given your immigration status.

The result, for many folks, is multiple cold inMails and connection requests to folks they find on LinkedIn searches to ask for referrals or mentorship. This is understandable. Attempting to make a career transition is stressful and any help is appreciated. Sadly, cold inMails to strangers turns out to be the least effective approach.

Over the past five years, I’ve been fortunate to make a transition that involved changing all 4 factors. As with most things, it took a combination of intention, work, dumb luck, and accumulated privilege. We’re still working through visa challenges – so the location change is far from final. Nevertheless, I thought I’d share a 3 step approach toward making big career transitions. To ensure broad relevance, I’ve focused on the key principles while also adding color based on my experiences.

(1) Construct plans A-F: The first and most important assumption I’ll make is that you know exactly what you want to do (if you don’t, please see the resources section below). Once you do so, construct plans A-F. This means having at least 6 routes to the destination. I think the word “destination” is particularly applicable if you are trying to make a cross-country switch as it is worth tackling that head on.

I say plans A-F because it is highly unlikely your plan A will work. And, as you cycle through them, it’ll become easier to move past F to other alphabets. :-) For example, I learnt about the Bay Area and tech while working on a student job portal start-up (that eventually failed) through university. That’s when the idea of working in tech in the Bay Area took hold. But, as I mentioned above, location switches are the hardest kind to make if you don’t have the right passport. In the next 4 years, I cycled through plans A-F before finally finding a graduate school in the US that took a chance on me. (Graduate school is a staple in the immigrant playbook to switch locations)

The next step was to make an company + industry switch – i.e. find a tech company that would take a chance on me – and then a role switch – I’d learned about product management and believed I’d found my functional home. But, how do you get a start when everyone wanted folks with relevant experience?

Below is an image with the 6 questions I’d suggest asking.

Next, my suggestion would be to build your plans by attacking as many of these options. For example, here’s how I approached it  –
A: Was connected to a role thanks to a past colleague.

B: Was connected to a few folks by the same past colleague (he’s a good samaritan) – one of these folks worked at LinkedIn. Also got a referral into someone from my graduate school alumni network. She helped with an interview call.

C: Didn’t attempt connections with strangers on LinkedIn as I wasn’t sure how I’d do so in a thoughtful manner.

D: I signed up for interviews with most companies that took a shot on MBA students without visa sponsorship for Product Management positions.

E – I thought highly of LinkedIn’s product and the vision and felt I’d fit in well. But, LinkedIn was also very mainstream. So, I was also focused on a company like VMWare that was focused on solving solutions with a high level of technical complexity. I figured thorough prep on server virtualization would be a competitive advantage – since few folks would actually do it.

F – I ended up betting on an internal transfer to move into Product Management at LinkedIn. These sorts of transfers are painful in most places. So, this wouldn’t have been my dominant strategy had it not been for an intersection with an opportunity to work with someone I liked and respected, a company whose mission resonated deeply and because of immigration considerations.

All in all, once I’d managed the location move, I attempted all options except emailing a random stranger because the chances of that working are minimal at best. If you are keeping count, I was well into plans M and N by this point.

(2) Understand base rates, preferred demographics and stereotypes: This step is designed to accomplish two objectives – i) Add a dose of realism to your search, and ii) Aide your preparation for an interview which you hopefully will land.

Step (1) was all about mapping your path to what you believe is a dream role. However, it helps to get a sense of the odds. Here, there are 3 questions that might help –
A. Base rates: Are there folks “like you” (similar education, work experiences) who are in those roles in companies you want to be?
B. Preferred demographics: Are you in the demographic that companies are hiring for right now?
C. Stereotype: Do you fit the stereotype that recruiters/hiring managers love?

I understand these may sound like controversial sounding questions. But, just because no one likes talking about them doesn’t mean they aren’t a key part of the hiring process.

In my case, the base rates were encouraging. There were folks with similar education, experiences in roles in tech. However, I wasn’t doing good on B. No one was jumping out of bed excited to add another Indian guy who needed visa sponsorship – which was getting more and more problematic – to their team. And, my stereotype was a mixed bag. The consultant + MBA combination was appreciated by some and despised by some. Now, you might say – “Hey, but what I did in the past doesn’t/shouldn’t define me.” Yes, it shouldn’t. But, given our human need to make quick decisions and label people, it does. So, we might as well learn to overcome it.

While you can’t do much about base rates and preferred demographics, it is important to note that you can do something about stereotypes – especially if you don’t believe you are the typical specimen. – by working on your story in your interviews. I didn’t think I was. I also had spent 3 years in a start-up and worked on plenty of side projects. I hoped to weave that into my story.

I had 2 key takeaways from my own inventory check –
1) This change was possible but was not going to be easy as the field was very competitive.
2) I’d have to find a way to make any interview calls I receive really count. I didn’t have experiences at a big name brand pre-graduate school. This generally means fewer interview shots since fewer folks are willing to take a chance on you. That, in turn, meant I needed to over index on interview readiness as I’d need to have a higher conversion rate.

(3) Take a really long term view. Do you care enough about your career switch to work on it for 5 years? If you do, that is good news. Here are 3 reasons why a long time horizon helps –

1) You will learn and grow through the process of attempting to make a switch. All these experiences will make you a better candidate – if you are willing to persist.

2) It is easier to change fewer variables at a time. For example, a change of location and role or location and industry are easier switches than attempting to change company, industry, role and location. This is particularly the case if you are immigrant – getting your location via visa sponsorship will likely be your dominant strategy.

3) You will have the time to convert random strangers and acquaintances to friends and well wishers. This is really really important. A big part of making transitions is building a network of relationships who will support you through it. And, it is very hard to build this network if you want immediate results. You can’t plant trees the day you want fruits.

I have a couple of stories to make my point. In my case, one of my failed early plans to move involved a final round interview that didn’t go well. However, I stayed in touch with the friend of a friend I’d mentioned above. We ended up meeting in person a couple of times and, thanks in no small part to the help I received, I ended up working on their team a full two years after we connected. Second time lucky.

Another related story – I was connected to someone by an acquaintance. This person stayed in touch via my blog with email exchanges over three years. That led to an in person meeting, then another one, and then a few calls. A full four years later, I was thrilled to help this person find a role where I work.

I could share a few more such stories to continue hammering this point home. But, I’ll stop. The key takeaway – our career journeys are long and full of surprising and random twists and turns. You never really know who will open a door for you some day in the future and you definitely don’t know if a good/bad day is so. It is futile to connect dots forward. So, a better approach is to make commitments on directional plans in the long term, be kind and thoughtful, and keep plugging away.

If this post is reaching you in the midst of a tough time, I’m sorry to hear that. It is surprisingly common on such journeys as the odds are always stacked against you. But, I’ve come to believe that the arc of success and opportunity bends toward merit in the long run. It helps to approach the whole journey as a mixture of scientist and student. Start with hypotheses, run experiments, test, learn, and iterate.

As the wonderful saying goes – “Things work out fine in the end. If it’s not fine, it is not the end.”

I hope this is helpful. Wishing you all the best on your journey.


Additional resources: Here are 5 resources that might help.

(1) The 3 phases of a job search process: This is a companion long read that dives into the details of the job search – figuring out where to apply, getting interviews, and doing well:

(2) 3 principles of asking for favors

(3) How to ask for help from people you don’t know and related – Ask advice better by replacing the generic question with a hypothesis

(4) How to ask for a cold call

(5) The 3 laws of privilege: Slightly off topic – but important. :-)

Fire and fire

A required skill as a parent of a toddler is an ability to cycle through diaper changes with minimum fuss. Sometimes, these end up being a joy because your toddler is willing to humor you. But, the real test is how you respond when they decide to fight it. How do you respond when faced with fire?

My natural reaction is to face fire with fire and just insist she gets it done. But, as you can imagine, this doesn’t sit well with her. Besides, as she grows bigger and stronger, it is evident that it isn’t a winning strategy anyway.

The trick with influencing kids is to be adept at distracting them. That doesn’t come naturally to me. So, I frequently find myself starting with the forceful reaction and then changing course. This morning, I managed an abrupt transition from “C’mon – just get this done already” to a song that worked like a charm.

I first came across the quote “when tempted to fight fire with fire, remember that the fire department uses water” seven years ago. It is incredibly relevant to me and is one I think about every time I feel I reacted inappropriately to conflict. The challenge with changing your default reactions is that it isn’t easy to “practice” these responses easily. And, without practice, you don’t ever really learn to change that behavior.

But, thanks to these diaper changes, I have an opportunity to work on this every day.

Here’s to getting better.

Get more vs. appreciate more

A delicious custard cake – the kind that melts in your mouth – is wasted on someone who doesn’t take the time to appreciate it. So are beautiful beaches, good teammates, the smell of flowers, supportive partners, good health, and thoughtful managers.

Lacking appreciation, it turns out, makes getting more a leaky bucket problem. It doesn’t matter how much effort you put into getting more – it won’t count for much.

We spend large swathes of our day working on skills (productivity, skills that make us better at our jobs) that are directed at helping us get more.

What if we siphoned off a portion of that effort to develop our appreciation skills instead?

Hard Choices Easy life

“Hard choices. Easy life. Easy choices. Hard life.”

As weightlifter Jerzy Gregorek reminds us with this simple and powerful reminder, we often overthink decision making.

The big question, then – what will we choose today?

Reactions and responses

When we face bumps in the road, we can spend time on reactions – oh crap!,” “why does this happen to me?,” “what will they think?,” “is this really my fault?” – or responses – “what is the creative, constructive, corrective action to be taken here?.”

3 things to know about these modes –

(1) Human nature dictates that we have to spend time in reaction mode first. There is no getting away from it even if we know it is a complete waste of time. It doesn’t help that it feels good to be in this mode for the short term.

(2) Given we have to spend time in reaction mode, the choice we exercise is whether to spend a quick second or many hours (depending on the nature of the problem, we may even lose the ability to respond after some time). We have limited time to deal with any given problem – so, every second wasted in reaction takes away time from our response.

(3) Moving from reaction to response is governed by how quick we move to take responsibility (response-ability). The quicker we’re able to shoulder the responsibility for what happens to us, the more painless the transition. And, this response-ability is among the strongest indicators we have of the strength of a person’s character.