Ralph Waldo Emerson on Resilience

I read the following excerpt from Emerson in Linchpin by Seth Godin. The book is worth reading for anyone who wants to have the career they deserve – and who wants to do work that matters.

If our young men miscarry in their first enterprises, they lose all heart. If the young merchant fails, men say he is ruined. If the finest genius studies at one of our colleges, and is not installed in an office within one year afterwards in the cities or suburbs of Boston or New York, it seems to his friends and to himself that he is right in being disheartened, and in complaining the rest of his life. A sturdy lad from New Hampshire or Vermont, who in turn tries all the professions, who teams it, farms it, peddles, keeps a school, preaches, edits a newspaper, goes to Congress, buys a township, and so forth, in successive years, and always, like a cat, falls on his feet, is worth a hundred of these city dolls. He walks abreast with his days, and feels no shame in not “studying a profession,” for he does not postpone his life, but lives already. He has not one chance, but a hundred chances.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Isn’t it funny how some of the most talented people are also the ones who worry the most about their careers? I see it all the time when I interview high school seniors who are applying to my alma mater – the kids with the best grades and the best test scores and the best high school resumes always seem to be the most stressed out about getting into the “right” college.

Four years later the stress continues, as these same kids, now a little older, stress out about getting into law school or medical school or the “right” career path. (Of course, the job market is terrible right now for new college grads, so maybe everyone is feeling the same kind of stress these days.)

I think in the future we’re going to see a different standard for success. It’s not about getting into a profession anymore – the professions have lost some of their cachet. Don’t be a doctor because you want to impress people or earn a big salary; there are better paying occupations that don’t require 10 years of schooling. Don’t be a lawyer because you think it’s the only way to have a “reputable” career – most lawyers hate their lives. And don’t expect to start out on one perfect career path the month after you graduate from college. Life is more complicated than that – and the most “successful” people, in the long run, are the ones who can try multiple things and bounce back from adversity and keep landing on their feet. It was true in Emerson’s day and it’s true today.

Richard Branson reacts to a cancelled flight

Since I have nothing to write about today, I’d like to share this story from “Linchpin” by Seth Godin.

Forty years ago, Richard Branson, who ultimately founded Virgin Air, found himself in an airport in the Caribbean. They had just cancelled his flight, the only flight that day. Instead of freaking out about how essential the flight was, how badly his day was ruined, how his entire career was now in jeopardy, the young Branson walked across the airport to the charter desk and inquired about the cost of chartering a flight out of Puerto Rico.

Then he borrowed a portable blackboard and wrote, “Seats to Virgin Islands, $39.” He went back to his gate, sold enough seats to his fellow passengers to completely cover his costs, and made it home on time. Not to mention planting the seeds for the airline he’d start decades later. Sounds like the kind of person you’d like to hire.

Are you the sort of person who gets angry when a flight is cancelled, or when some other inconvenience stands in your way? Or are you the kind of person who changes the game altogether?

The Myth of Efficiency

I recently read a great blog post called The Myth of Efficiency. The premise is that for knowledge workers, trying to build more efficient work processes or implementing time saving “efficiencies” is not an effective way to boost productivity.

Here’s a (lengthy) excerpt that I especially liked:

The idea is that time has a monetary value (say, the per-hour employment costs of each employee), and if you save time, you save money. One example that LeBlanc mentions is moving printers. It seems to make sense on its face. You spend time walking to and from the printer. Therefore, printers should be located to minimize the total time people spend in transit, which could mean moving the printer closer to the heavy users of printing. Then those people can spend more time at their desks being productive.

But there is a serious fallacy in this argument: the assumption that the constraint on productivity is time at your desk. Let’s leave aside the issue of whether you are productive walking to the printer. The more serious issue is that you aren’t equally productive the whole time you sit at your desk. What if you spend your extra two minutes (in reduced time picking up printouts) at I Can Has Cheezburger?

Well, the efficiency expert may counter, all I need to assume is that a fixed percentage of your desk time is productive. But that’s still a big assumption. Maybe the real constraint on your daily productivity is mental energy, and you only have enough mental energy to do four hours of real work a day. Then your extra two minutes will all go to looking at pictures of cats with ungrammatical captions. Even more likely, maybe the real constraint is your internal sense of what a reasonable day’s work is.

With knowledge workers – those who work with information, ideas, numbers, words – the most important factor driving productivity is not the sheer amount of time spent at our desks. Work sometimes happens in surges and bursts. Great ideas sometimes materialize out of idleness. Breakthroughs happen when you step away from your desk and take a walk outside and return to the problem with fresh eyes.

The operations and systems of most knowledge work is already about as “efficient” as it’s going to get – we can send e-mail and get Google search results instantaneously. So we’re not really able to get much “faster” at how we do this kind of work.

The real question for knowledge workers – and their employers – is not, “are you doing things efficiently,” but “are you doing the right things?”

Increasingly this will be the only question that matters.

Focused effort

How much “work” actually gets done in the course of a typical eight hour workday?

3 hours? 4 hours at most?

So much of the typical day is wasted in meetings, small talk, coffee breaks, checking e-mail – and of course, interruptions. According to this article, interruptions – phone calls, e-mails , take up approximately 28% of the typical knowledge worker’s day. (That’s 2.25 hours out of an 8-hour day.)

This is yet another reason that the standard idea of the cubicle job with the 8 hour day is outdated.

Why are companies paying people to sit around and hang out and be interrupted all day? Very few people are actually “working” the entire time (or even most of the time) that they’re at “work.” Why not just figure out what the “stuff” is that most needs to be done, and pay people for the actual hours of focused effort that are required to get the job done?

For most “knowledge jobs,” it’s getting to be easier and more efficient to measure and reward focused effort. And both employers and employees will benefit.

I’m Breathing

A family member of mine recently went through a serious health scare. She’s doing better now, but it was quite a frightening experience, to say the least.

Times like these remind me of the great play “A Man for All Seasons.” The last lines, spoken by the play’s narrator, The Common Man:

I’m breathing…are you breathing too? It’s nice, isn’t it? It isn’t difficult to keep alive, friends. Just don’t make trouble. Or if you must make trouble, make the sort of trouble that’s expected.

Today I’m going to spend some time just being grateful for breathing.

“You eat what you kill”

There’s an old saying in sales, “you eat what you kill.”

But customers aren’t prey, they’re renewable resources.

If you do great work and treat your clients well, they will reward you with repeat business, referrals, and a self-replenishing supply of money coming in.

Don’t “kill” your customers. Cultivate and nurture them. You don’t always have to eat what you kill; sometimes you eat what you grow.

“The Internet? Bah!”

I found a hilarious article the other day in the Newsweek archives…back in 1995, a guy named Clifford Stoll penned an op-ed for Newsweek titled: “The Internet? Bah!” He goes on to talk about all the ways in which the Internet had been overhyped and wasn’t going to turn out to be that big of a deal.

Reading it now, in 2010, is deeply entertaining. Here’s a sampling:

The truth is, no online database will replace your daily newspaper, no CD-ROM can take the place of a competent teacher and no computer network will change the way government works…

How about electronic publishing? Try reading a book on disc. At best, it’s an unpleasant chore: the myopic glow of a clunky computer replaces the friendly pages of a book. And you can’t tote that laptop to the beach. Yet Nicholas Negroponte, director of the MIT Media Lab, predicts that we’ll soon buy books and newspapers straight over the Internet. Uh, sure.

This next part is my favorite:

Then there’s cyberbusiness. We’re promised instant catalog shopping–just point and click for great deals. We’ll order airline tickets over the network, make restaurant reservations and negotiate sales contracts. Stores will become obselete. So how come my local mall does more business in an afternoon than the entire Internet handles in a month? Even if there were a trustworthy way to send money over the Internet–which there isn’t–the network is missing a most essential ingredient of capitalism: salespeople.

In the author’s defense, the Internet really was pretty bad back in 1995. There was no Google, it was wildly inefficient to search for information, most people didn’t even have e-mail addresses, and there was no online social networking as we know it today. And Stoll wasn’t railing against technology so much as he was debunking the utopian visionaries talking about how The Internet Will Change Everything, and warning against the tendency of technology to isolate people from each other – real human connections are more important than mindless data points in an ocean of information.

But what this article ultimately reminds me of is that a lot of our predictions about the future will often turn out to be wildly wrong. While it’s true that techno-visionaries can be overly optimistic, we shouldn’t discount the ability of technology to change the way we interact with our world – and we shouldn’t underestimate the human potential to adapt and embrace change.

As Slate’s technology columnist, Farhad Manjoo put it:

Many of the technologies that we now take for granted—online social networks, Web video, and photo libraries—weren’t invented a decade ago and were only in their infancy five years ago. (YouTube celebrated its fifth birthday this month.) In a decade from now, I predict, we’ll be using gadgets and tech tools that nobody has conjured as of 2010.

In the realm of outlandish predictions, I feel more comfortable with the extreme optimists.

The only truly stupid prediction to make about the future is that nothing is going to change and that none of our technology is ever going to get any better.

How your job is like the Tonight Show

Thinking back on the recent brouhaha of Jay vs. Conan and who’s going to be the host of the Tonight Show, I was ultimately reminded of how outdated that entire model of entertainment has become.

Now that we have Facebook and Twitter and Youtube and Hulu and Google, we don’t need “The Tonight Show” anymore. We don’t need late night hosts to do monologues at 11 p.m. to recap on the day’s news and the latest celebrity foibles. We don’t need a tiny club of highly paid white guys on TV who tell us what is funny and what is worth paying attention to.

Of course, being the host of the Tonight Show is still a prestigious and well-paying job. There are still millions of people who watch it. But it’s no longer the pinnacle of pop culture, and its relevance and influence is going to continue to fade.

So what does this have to do with your job?

The Tonight Show is just the latest and most visible example of how, with the Internet, we no longer need to access information at a particular time and place. We no longer need to wait for the newspaper to arrive at our doorstep in the morning, we no longer need the evening news to tell us the weather forecast, and we no longer need to watch TV or go to a  movie theater at an appointed time and place in order to be entertained.

Most white collar jobs – cubicle jobs – are all about accessing and disseminating information. So why do these jobs still have to take place at a certain set time and location?

If we can get our Tonight Show highlights on Hulu and watch them on our smartphones while we eat breakfast, then why do we have to sit at a particular desk and a particular cubicle just to create value and earn money?

Just as people have gotten accustomed to accessing their news and entertainment at any time and place, before long, “work” will no longer be a place you go; it will be something you do – anywhere and anytime.

How to get started on Elance

A few people recently have asked me for advice on how to get started on Elance. Here are some tips:

  • Verify your credentials. It only costs like $4 to prove that yes, you did in fact go to college, yes, you did in fact work where you claim to have worked. Pay the money and prove that you’re legitimate. And if you verify 2 or more credentials and do good work, you can qualify for the Elance Premier Provider program.
  • Upload a portfolio. If you’re a writer, share some good writing samples. If you’re a Web designer, share some URLs of sites you’ve developed. Clients want to see your work. Especially before you start getting some Elance jobs, your portfolio is the best way to show what you can do and demonstrate that you are worth hiring.
  • The first project is the hardest to win. Be prepared to work cheap at first. If you’re a new provider on Elance, with no reputation and no track record, people are going to be skeptical about hiring you. You’re going to need to prove yourself – even if that means working for less money than you had planned.
  • Don’t get discouraged. Some days, all the projects that are posted on Elance look depressing – and some of them are depressing – the pay is too low, the client sounds sketchy, etc. But remember: you don’t have to win every project. You’re not going to win every project. Just try to bid on a few projects each day and put your best foot forward with each one. It’s funny – sometimes, projects that originally look less-than-promising will turn out to be some of your best clients on Elance. You never know.
  • Remember: most clients are good people. In all the dozens of projects I’ve completed on Elance, I only had one client who failed to pay me. (And who knows – he might still pay me; it’s only been 3 months.) There are unscrupulous, dishonest people out there, but my experience on Elance (and in life) has been that the overwhelming majority of people will do the right thing and will behave honestly most of the time.
  • Trust – but verify. Most clients are good people, but don’t start working on a project until the full project fee is funded. I’ve had two clients who promised they would pay me, then I delivered the work even though they hadn’t fully funded the project in the Escrow account, and then I never heard from them again. (One of them did eventually pay me after I filed a dispute with Elance.) Once you have an established relationship with a client, perhaps then you can loosen up a bit and deliver work even if they haven’t gotten around to funding the fee – but especially at first, make sure that your clients are serious about paying you – for the full amount they’ve agreed to.
  • Don’t waste time. If you’re a freelancer working from home, your only real overhead is the value of your time. This means that when in doubt, you should just go ahead and bid on a project. If you’ve spent 15 minutes reading the project description and thinking about whether to put in a bid, you might as well spend the 50 cents worth of Connects and actually bid on the job. Introduce yourself to as many potential clients as possible – the only cost is the time it takes you to press “Send.” Even if it later turns out that you don’t have time to take on the work, or the project isn’t quite the right fit, you can always decline the offer.
  • Don’t use pre-packaged pitches. Clients will be able to tell if you’re sending them a project quote that just contains standard boilerplate. Don’t use the same verbiage for every project. It’s fine if you want to have a standard set of bullet points to succinctly describe your qualifications, but even these should be tweaked to show an interest in the particular needs of this client and this project that you are currently bidding on.
  • Be brave. It can be tough to put yourself out there and promote yourself to prospective clients. Not everyone is able to be so aggressive and self-confident and tenacious. It can be tough to get rejected or ignored, or to never hear back from someone who seemed like they were going to be a promising new client. But think of it this way: Elance is one of the most efficient methods in the world for finding work! You spend a few hours sending e-mails to people, and eventually you get hired, and a few days later you have real money in your bank account. And it all starts with sending e-mails – are you afraid to send a few e-mails? Try to make a game of it – make it fun.

Think of it this way; all you’re basically doing on Elance is introducing yourself to people. Not everyone is going to be the right fit for you, not every project will be right for what you do, but if you give it time and make a diligent, consistent effort, great things can happen.

Happy hunting!

Impotent Rage

Is there any other kind?

Doesn’t all rage originate from feelings of powerlessness?

Think about the times in your life when you’ve felt really, really angry. Were you angry because someone disrespected you, because you felt helpless, taken advantage of, bullied, deceived? Is there anything more frustrating than being put into an unpleasant situation that you cannot change or control in any way? (I know we’re supposed to learn to “let go” in situations like this, but I still struggle with this – and I think a lot of other people do too.)

When we lose our feelings of personal empowerment, everything seems hopeless. That’s when we feel trapped, stymied, stuck. There’s a reason why “air rage” happens – people get tired of sitting on a runway for five hours waiting to take off, or being trapped in a cabin with no leg room. “Road rage” happens when someone else’s stupid driving endangers your life or wastes your time – leaving you feeling powerless. Don’t you think most people would be more polite to call center employees if they didn’t have to wait on hold listening to insipid music for 15 minutes while being asked to re-enter their account information seven times along the way?

Anger and rage and negative feelings are part of the human condition. But every day, companies should look for ways to empower their customers and employees. No one likes to feel trapped and powerless. (And as for me, I’m going to keep working on learning to let go…)