“Be yourself” can be really bad advice

There’s a category of advice that sounds good in theory but is pretty bad in practice. “Follow your passion” is one example. “Be yourself” is another.

The issue with “be yourself” is that it reeks of the fixed mindset and gets in the way of self improvement. It does so by encouraging the “This is just who I am – take it or leave it” mindset.

That is not to say we can change everything about ourselves. If you are an impatient person (speaking to myself) by nature, you are not going to become the most patient. But, you don’t have to either. Our traits and temperaments are part of a spectrum and we can always put in the work to stretch ourselves to move along that spectrum and learn to be flexible with how we apply ourselves in situations.

Put differently, if who you are is getting in the way of what you’d like to get done, stop being yourself and get better.

Perhaps a better piece of advice would be to ask folks to “become yourself.” It doesn’t just add a necessary air of intrigue to what is a fascinating lifetime journey of discovering our ever expanding capacity for change, it also focuses the journey on growth.

Besides, as Carol Dweck might say, becoming is better than being anyway.

Good career advice

Sometimes, I think most good career advice boils down to some version of –

“Don’t be in a hurry to climb some arbitrary career ladder or obtain some badge of supposed honor. Hustle, instead, to identify and solve problems that you think are challenging, useful, and learning filled – even if they’re risky at times. And, while you’re at it, invest effort in becoming self aware, doing good work, and being kind to people along the way.”

As with all great advice – it is relatively easy to formulate and say/find and very hard to live by.

Challenging career switches and vanity metrics

Folks who are attempting challenging career switches (top graduate school or some combination of industry, function, location change) often make a mistake that turns out to be debilitating for their search. They index highly on “conversion rate.”

You know this is happening when the internal dialog is – “I applied to 7 places and no one / only one person got back to me.” They’re implicitly calculating a conversion rate of 0/7 or 1/7. While that may be bad for a standard job search, conversion rate is just a vanity metric in challenging searches.

You could have applied to 100 places for all I care – what matters is finding that ONE place that will give you a shot. A focus on conversion rate is, thus, a recipe for giving up too quickly. Having made this mistake myself, I can’t overstate the importance of avoiding it.

If you are convinced the challenging career switch is right for you, your most important allies are grit – passion and perseverance – and a growth mindset. As long as you are learning from your missteps and improving your approach, one opportunity will eventually show up.

And, all it takes is for one to work out.

Attachment to principles versus processes

The biggest benefit of experience is better pattern matching. You’ve seen many of the today’s movies play out before and are equipped to deal with them. The downside is a growing attachment to processes versus principles. This when you say something like – “This worked before. This is how I do this sort of thing” instead of “This is why I do what I do.”

I’ve noticed this creep into my thought process from time to time when it wouldn’t have five years back.

Here’s an example – let’s say a rapid, iterative approach to product creation worked on your team in the last year. The process you could get attached to is “Rapid, iterative product creation is how to build products.” Instead, the principle probably is – “The best process to building products is dependent on the context, the company, and the kind of customer.” If you were attached to the principle, you might decide that slower, more thoughtful product creation process is what the current situation needs. Whatever the outcome, you’d consider the alternative.

The challenge with developing an attachment to a process over a principle is that the principle you implicitly choose is “Refusing to ask why means choosing comfort over growth and inflexibility over seeking the truth.”

That is the polar opposite of one of the most important life principles – change is the only constant. We either change proactively or are forced to do so by circumstance – an experience that is best avoided.

Principles first. Processes second.

Looking outward

There’s a lot written these days about millennial employees looking to find purpose at work. These discussions are interesting and speak to the challenges executives and HR professionals face as they seek to combine monetization with collaborative and inspiring workplace.

That said, I do find myself wondering how much of this is actually about the desire to find purpose at work versus seeking those powerful and elusive intangibles like happiness, equanimity, and peace of mind.

If it is the latter – and, in many cases, there’s reason to believe it is – seeking fulfillment at the office is just a distraction. Regardless of how wonderful the values might be, workplace cultures are built around incentives like pay, promotions, and performance reviews that encourage us to look outward. The powerful intangibles that we tend to seek, on the other hand, only exist when we look inward.

No amount of effort will help us find them if we spend it looking in the wrong places.

Find them within ourselves, we must.

The Queen died. The King died.

Take 1: The Queen died. The King died.

Take 2: The Queen died. And the King died of a broken heart.

Five extra words transformed two boring facts into a story capable of stirring emotion (“Aww”). There’s a lot of talk about storytelling with mental pictures of Steve Jobs floating around. But, if you had to be reductionist, the formula (probably) would be –

Stories = Facts + Context + Emotion

As we move from one meeting to the next pitching our ideas, it is worth remembering that facts and logic only help people reach conclusions. Stories, however, bring emotion to the table.

And, it is emotion that drives action.

(H/T Dan Pink – for such a memorable illustration on the power of stories.)

Content, Structure, Structure, Delivery

In the age of 6 page memos and product press releases (thanks Amazon), writing has become a core skill at work. Great professional writing brings together insightful content, a logical structure, and good delivery.

Insightful content is what gets us through the door when we write. This is different from public speaking as you can get away without saying much and still give a good speech. Insert a few jokes, say things your audience want to hear, and you could give a good speech. But, writing well is much harder than speaking – your content shines through (or not).

Assuming you have insightful content, the element that most gets in the way of good writing is a logical structure. While many labor under the assumption that they’d be better if their grammar, vocabulary, and language was better, “delivery” generally helps move very good writing to great writing. Structure is what moves you from passable to very good.

The challenge with structuring documents is that our first draft is often our first attempt at thinking through the idea or question at hand. And, once we put our ideas down, the initial structure becomes art that mustn’t be tampered with – in our minds. That, then, gets to the challenge of good structure – we need to find ways to either separate the thinking process from the writing process by structuring our narratives upfront. Or, we must write our first draft and then do a complete rewrite by putting yourself in the shoes of your audience.

I expect to write more about structure as I spend more time learning how to do so. However, the first step is improvement is awareness. Today’s takeaway is simple – when you write next, obsess about structure.