When parenting children and coaching new graduates in their jobs, I try to emphasize good as the goal – good as in good enough — as in your things are on time, reasonably clean, and your mind is clear and your conscience is unblemished. “Great” is like those Japanese salt/sesame/seaweed mixes – it’s a seasoning – you sprinkle it – you never let it overwhelm your commitment to good – you will work your whole life to get that balance. Consistently good trumps sporadically great every time.
“Never put off until tomorrow what you can do today.” How many times do we say that maxim to ourselves and then blow off responding to an invitation or getting a confirmed appointment into our calendar? I’m guilty of it, and I am sure I am not the only person. The reason for blowing off this step is often benign. First, invites come in at random times. Often I am not at my calendar – worse, I keep 2-3 calendars: one for at home use by my whole family, second is my phone calendar which pings at me so often I am inured to reminders even if I did calendar them — and so I often ignore it. Lastly, I have a daily planner which I love because I can take all my notes in it, however I often don’t have it when I am running errands or joining a friend for dinner-key times when new appointments might come up. Sound familiar? Maybe you have a fantastic memory and don’t feel you need to write things down. Younger people are particularly guilty of this because they have fewer kids, pets, direct reports, etc. and they have not yet been smoked by enough missed appointments to be cured of this bad habit.
So, here is my simple recommendation – Get ONE calendar! There, I said it. ONE – and keep that updated meticulously (my phone calendar is that ONE calendar). You can have others, but just don’t rely on those. NEXT: make a time of day when you calendar all your appointments and when you check the next day’s commitments. You may THINK you aren’t capable of becoming a meticulous calendar checker, BUT: you probably brush teeth, eat meals and sleep at quite specific times of day most days of the year. So, yes you are capable of doing this. If you have an established habit – like making a coffee in the morning or teeth brushing – link calendar checking to the established habit. This “pairing” will fast forward you quickly to building the calendaring habit.
Lastly — this may sound like a grandmotherly etiquette lesson but you MUST practice confirming appointments and in the following specific format… and in a timely fashion. The best way to send a confirmation is to repeat back all details in your response, including how best to reach you if they have a problem. Example: “Looking forward to seeing you August 15, 2018 at 2 PM upstairs at the Starbucks in Copley Square, Boston. My cell is 617-905-8568 if you need to text or call me for any reason.” In this exact format, most email programs from Gmail to Yahoo will create a hyperlink of your data and you can automatically get this appointment into your online or phone calendar without any more typing. The person you are meeting can do the same, and if there were any confusion about date, time or place, you can avoid the problem NOW as they will likely i.d. the problem immediately. Again, it seems very “Emily Post” to do it this way – but etiquette is often designed to be very practical. That is why Emily lives on into the technological age even if embossed calling cards are a Dickensian frivolity of the past.
Calendars can seem tedious, time consuming, and something you do after you get your “real” work done. You may feel that really talented people memorize their calendar and don’t need to go to the trivial step of writing things down. This could not be further from the truth. Your calendar and how you maintain it is the front line showcase of your organizing ability and your integrity. It is one of the very MOST important tasks you will do every day. NEVER treat it as a secondary or tertiary item on your to-do list. How you fulfill your commitments is THE key statement of how reliable you are in the world. And…this should make you feel GREAT. You do NOT need to be the smartest student or worker. You do NOT need to be the coolest, the handsome-ist, the richest. You just have to treat others well and make time a few minutes every day to know where you need to be and when. A small hurdle that will vault you to being an outstanding employee, family member and friend.
As the HBR article points out – toxic office behaviors are at the root of much of corporate dysfunction. Bright people are often the biggest perpetrators. So, what to do? From the research, it looks like making a conscientious effort to work on weaknesses truly can help a person function better at work to the tune of 30-40% more effectiveness at their jobs. The major reason this approach has fallen out of favor among coaches and self-help guides is that, “let me help you fix your faults” is not the sexy message that sells coaching and books. However, it is what keeps workers employed, and ultimately it is the work that will remove the road blocks that keep an employee from promotions and raises. Bosses are loathe to comment on weaknesses. Gone are the days of a manager who just manages others. They are busy with their own deliverables and unpleasant conversations derail their flow. Often they ignore the telltale signs and only address problems after the issues have built up for a while. You know what also builds up? Impatience and anger at the employee, such that many times by the time feedback on negative behaviors is shared, the manager has already demoted the employee in their mind. This makes it much harder for the employee to have a positive impact when they do address problems and change. Like a halo effect, the manager is carrying around the baggage from the pileup of infractions which comes with emotions that are fraught.
What’s the quick way to rectify this? An honest positive relationship with a manager. Your willingness to start your first few weeks at a job encouraging the manager to give all kinds of feedback – positive and negative – will put him/her at ease. You can even go into your weekly meetings (hopefully you are having those) with your own self-aware critiques to share.
You don’t want to over do the negative – start with items from your list of weekly accomplishments, intermittently bringing up difficulties and challenges – maybe 25% of the discussion can be about challenges? The conversation will feel a lot like the point in an interview when they ask, “What are your weaknesses?” As I’m sure you know, the formula for the weakness answer is, “here is something I find challenging,” (give a real example). Follow up with, “here is how I am attempting to work on it (give examples).” Unlike in an interview, you will take this one step further. Add, “do you have any ideas how I could get better faster on this issue?” This kind of dialogue, said in a positive and collaborative way, will get you far better input than just focusing on accomplishments. And if your manager is not receptive, try it with a colleague with a communications style you really appreciate. A, “really level with me” conversation with a trusted colleague or boss can make the world of difference, particularly if it is interwoven into a broader conversation that brings up your strengths.
Do you want to forge a new or improved path in life but feel you have the basic building blocks under control? Or, do you feel you have major life events that act as stumbling blocks and need resolution? While therapists are licensed and coach/mentors are not, they both provide valuable input when you are stuck or have self-limiting patterns. To make the determination of whether you need one or the other, you will want to figure out whether deeper unresolved issues are holding you back. Or, is your path forward cloudy because of either a sense of not knowing your options yet or not being motivated to stick to a plan. Coaching operates in a framework where the basic assuption is a client is healthy and whole, therapy involves the assumption that the client wants/needs healing of some sort.
If you want to think in terms of a sports analogy, therapists treat deeper issues much the way a physical therapist, orthopedist, chiropractor, or acupuncturist might treat an ongoing injury such as tennis elbow. A coach/mentor will act more like a workout or sport coach, giving you tasks and monitoring your progress while providing you feedback and motivating you as you improve. I have seen students who employ both therapy and coaching together. While this approach can be costly, it is quite effective. Likewise, I have seen folks who use these two modalities sequentially – some start with therapy, resolve issues, potentially are medicated for any mental health issues such as depression or anxiety, and then move on to coaching. Others start with coaching and if they fail to meet their objectives, they move on to therapy as a way to uncover and resolve emotional issues that are blocking their progress. The key thing is that a reputable coach or mentor is just that, a coach/mentor, and does not handle psychological issues. Both approaches can bring life long value and are worth exploration.
To know yourself better, you can do a short exercise where you write down five goals you have for your future. Under each goal, write down what is holding you back. If the issues seem to be tactical in nature such as motivation, lack of contacts to help you, dissastistaction with concrete tasks and commitments you have in your life, a desire to move or to get a promotion but a fear of breaking down and executing on the detailed steps that will take, then a coach may be the best approach. If your mind focuses on deeper and more generalized fears – fear of failure, sadness around lack of love or happiness in your life, unresolved issues with family or friends, then therapy may be a great place to start.
“Prestige is especially dangerous to the ambitious. If you want to make ambitious people waste their time on errands, the way to do it is to bait the hook with prestige. That’s the recipe for getting people to give talks, write forewords, serve on committees, be department heads, and so on. It might be a good rule simply to avoid any prestigious task. If it didn’t suck, they wouldn’t have had to make it prestigious.” Paul Graham, Founder of Y Combinator
Think about this for a minute. Let it really sink in. If you start from the premise that your life’s work should be about doing jobs that please others? Where does that leave you? You will be crafting a whole life based on a false you, and that will create all kinds of problems in your life.
So, start early. Have conversations. Use the classic 5 Ws that are taught in basic journalism and investigation/research classes. I have adapted them here for the young job seeker.
Who? Do you want to work with (ok that should be Whom?!) (people your age? people smarter than you are? in a big group? by yourself?)
What? Do you want to be doing most of the day. (talk to people, manage others, sell, make spreadsheets, proofread, handle lots of details, work with money or animals or children or the elderly?)
Where? Do you want to be when you are doing this work (inside? outside? in a team? solitary? in a city? in the wilderness?)
When? Do you want a regular schedule, do you want to travel which might involve nights and weekends, do you prefer evenings or mornings? And then the big one…
Why? What makes you think these things are true about yourself (get really honest about this to yourself)? What are supporting data? Have you really looked at how you act now and how you think you will want to act in the future? Have you ever been able to change a behavior you don’t like? Or, are there things that are just part of what makes you “you,” and you will need to accommodate those traits in order to succeed in your career (NOTE: this is a key factor in being successful, workarounds are crucial as we cannot be good at everything)?
Going back to Paul Graham’s quote above, what is driving you to say all these things? Is it really your opinion, or are you trying to appease or please friends, family, professors, coaches, or society-at-large? And if you are, then please re-do your 5 Ws until they truly reflect you, without the influence of wanting to please others.
It is not to say that you can not make a lifetime of work into a success by massaging what is truly your preferred path so that your career pays well. Maybe you know you really want to live in an affluent community and will need a certain income. But, you would be surprised how finding satisfying work will often take you to communities where you are very happy — often you are then surrounded by like-minded people. You can then augment your desire for life’s nice things outside of your job, rather than design a whole career just to get those nice things. Most of us spend more time at work than doing any other activity. Remember that when you decide on a job solely to provide you with a certain upscale lifestyle. You may not have time to enjoy the lifestyle you can now afford.
Bottom-line, your career needs to contain kernels of the real you, based on your answers to the 5 Ws. Knowing this early will save you a great deal of frustration, altercations with peers and bosses, failure in the work place and in your life, and the heartache and huge waste of time that all these issues brings a person.
If you truly have no idea where to start, then talk with close adult family friends, teachers, and family. Ask them about your best traits. Then ask them what kind of careers would utilize those traits. This is the beginning of networking and an essential step as you hone your path and seek jobs that let you flourish. Certainly you could read any one of hundreds of career books like, What Color Is Your Parachute?, the classic by Richard Nelson Bolles.But you don’t have to. Merely working through the 5 Ws and separating out what is a good match for you vs. what you think will look prestigious will get you very far, in a much shorter time.