I’ve been doing a series of coaching calls with a wide range of successful people, to learn what’s holding them back in life. One of the most common fears: the fear of making mistakes. And it’s no wonder…
It’s election time. And political discussions tell us that anyone who makes a mistake should be shunned for life, barred from public office, and labeled a “flip-flopper” (especially if they change their mind as a result of learning from their mistake). Success literature, however, tells us that we should learn to be comfortable with failure and make mistakes! One of my most accomplished business school professors once said: if you’re not making enough mistakes, you’re not taking enough risks. How about you? Do you know how to make the most of your mistakes?
If you’re not making enough mistakes, you’re not taking enough risks.
Bad Outcomes Don’t Necessarily Mean Mistakes
Our school system trains us for decades that not getting the right answer means we were wrongand somehow didn’t work hard enough. Once we get into the real world, we bring that mindset along with us. If we don’t get the results we want, we assume we made a mistake.
This isn’t necessarily so. Here’s a thought experiment to understand why. Imagine you have two quarters. One is perfectly fair. It has 50%/50% odds of flipping heads or tails. The other is weighted. It has a 60% chance of flipping heads.
We have two Coin Operators, whose job is to flip heads. They’re allowed to choose either coin to flip.
Peyton, Coin Operator #1, chooses to flip the 50/50 coin and gets HEADS.
Harley, Coin Operator #2 chooses to flip the 60/40 coin and gets TAILS.
Who made the mistake? If we look at the outcomes, it appears that Harley made the mistake. But before we know the outcome, we would favor Haley’s decision to choose the coin that is weighted towards heads. Haley pursued the outcome using the right process, even though it was the wrong outcome.
I hear you cry, “But Harley made the right choice! The outcome should have been heads!” I agree! We really want to believe that our actions will give us the results we want. The real world, however, is sadistic: sometimes things work, and sometimes they don’t. We have a name for this. We call this luck.
We can do the right thing, have bad luck, and get the wrong outcome. We can do the wrong thing, have good luck, and get the outcome we want.
This gives us a critical insight into the nature of mistakes: it isn’t the outcome that lets us know we’ve made a mistake; it’s what we did to get the outcome, our process, that lets us know if we made a mistake.
We’re not taught to think this way. We’re not given societal support to think this way. We don’t evaluate our political candidates this way. We don’t evaluate our employees this way.
But if you want to train yourself to get what you want in life, don’t measure mistakes by outcomes. Burn these definitions into your brain:
Success is using a high-quality process, regardless of outcome.
Mistakes are using a low-quality process, regardless of outcome.
Other People May Not Suck as Much as We Think
Deep down inside, we all love judging other people, especially politicians. But this new definition of mistakes means we need to be careful. If we judge them based on outcomes, we might end up deciding that the Peytons of the world are amazing and awesome and worthy of backrubs, while the Harleys of the world should eat rocks.
Unfortunately, however, unless we’re paying attention during the entire effort, we rarely know what process someone used to reach their outcome. That makes it harder to judge them accurately.
I took a mediation class, where I had the joy of mediating a 10-party negotiation between the heads of several organizations. Each organization cared about different things, with different priorities. The real estate developers wanted more land. The conservationists wanted land made off-limits to developers. The Mayor cared about economic development and tourist trade. The historical society cared about limiting changes to any part of the city.
The final agreement satisfied no one, but at least everyone was equally dissatisfied. To each organization, the outcome surely looked like a failure. But the representatives reached the best agreement they could, given the conflicting interests, the time available, and the fledgling abilities of the mediator.
It’s easy to say “my [politician, boss, representative] failed by not getting outcome I wanted.” If we really want competent leaders, however, we do better to judge the process they use. Do they take steps to understand the issues? Do they understand whose support is needed and build the necessary coalitions? Do they compromise where needed, and hold firm where needed?
When evaluating others, don’t judge their success and failure from their outcomes. Look as closely as possible at their process.
Getting the Most Out of Your Mistakes
Although mistakes are a sign that you’re really moving, stretching, and growing yourself, that doesn’t mean you want to make the same ones over and over. You want to learn as much as you possibly can each time things don’t work out.
When a mistake happens, hold an After Action Review. Take time to reflect explicitly on what worked, what didn’t, and why. Consider what happened on the ground—what worked out the way you expected, and what didn’t. What happened that you didn’t plan for, and what didn’t happen that you did plan for? Also consider what happened in your head. How did your a priori beliefs factor into what happened? Were your interpretations of what was going on correct? Where did you waste time paying too much attention to trivialities, and where did you miss opportunity by not paying enough attention?
Making mistakes, combined with a good after action review, helps you refine several important aspects of your future thinking.
Mistakes Refine Cause/Effect Thinking
We all have theories about what causes what. Some of our theories are pretty good. We believe that watering a plant will help it grow. We water the plant. It grows. Our cause/effect works, we’re happy, and the plant is happy (maybe even ecstatic, depending on how long it’s been since you last watered it).
Some of our theories really don’t work at all. “Step on a crack, break your mother’s back” isn’t orthopedically sound advice. If you want to protect mom’s back, teaching her proper posture and good form when lifting heavy boxes is a far better plan.
And some of our theories about cause and effect are sort of true. “Work hard and you’ll get ahead” certainly works great while we’re in school. But once we’re in the work world, the link between hard work and advancement is much more tenuous. In many cases, it doesn’t hold at all.
Avoidable mistakes often help us refine our notions of cause and effect. Many people believed that putting money into the stock market would result in a consistent, positive return on their money. In 2008, an entire generation discovered that cause/effect in stock investing is more subtle, and less dependable, than they thought. Next time a financial advisor happily informs them “invest in fund X and you’ll make 11% interest for 43 years,” they’ll (hopefully) know to refine their notion that giving money to a financial advisor automatically leads to a comfortable retirement.
Mistakes Refine Discrimination Abilities
We don’t just learn rules about cause and effect. We also learn how to discriminate between different situations. For example, with the label side down, a tube of toothpaste and a tube of athlete’s foot creme might look identical. One might simply look in the drawer, see a tube, squeeze it onto a toothbrush, and pop that brush right into their mouth and start brushing.
One might then discover one’s mistake. This will lead quickly to the learning that although tubes look the same face down, there are subtle clues as to which tube belongs in the mouth, and which tube belongs in the foot. For example, fine print on the back of the tube that says “for treatment of athlete’s foot and other topical fungal infections. Don’t eat it, you moron.”
That particular mistake is the one that got me to start paying close attention to the difference between tubes of cream.
Then there are my singing lessons, where my voice teacher forced me to listen to recordings of our lesson. When I was able to stop gritting my teeth, I began to develop the ability to distinguish between a tritone and a major fifth. It turns out that when you’re singing harmony, that distinction matters.
Mistakes help us refine the distinctions we make in the world.
Mistakes Refine Luck
And finally, mistakes help us understand the role of luck in what we’re trying to do. To return to our coin toss example, if we know Harley chose the 60/40 coin to flip, and it still came up tails, that tells us that luck played a factor in the outcome. While we would have prefered that Harley flip heads, we can be confident that the outcome of tails reflects luck, and not Harley’s abilities.
We might think mistakes are bad, but nothing could be further from the truth. Mistakes help us learn if we respond correctly. We should understand the roles luck and skill played in our outcome. Analyzing our process will tell us if we our good process gave a poor outcome, or whether we had a genuinely poor process. And we should refine our understanding of cause/effect, our discrimination abilities, and the role of luck. Our greatest advancement happens when we learn when things go wrong. To do anything else would be a mistake.
If you’re a physicist, you call it a wave function. Or quantum mechanics. Or alternate universes, or something. But you’re not a physicist, so let’s stick with luck. ↩
In April 2008, I gave a talk at Harvard Business School on the Ten Cultural Career Lies. These are things I believed for most of my life. Recently, the conventional wisdom started seeming suspect. I called several of my classmates who are all mid-career and asked what had led to their successes and failures. Upon close examination, much of what I had believed to be true about careers did not seem to hold.
This is one man’s experience. I invite you to decide if it matches your experience.
1. You can plan your career (or would even want to).
That’s not my experience, nor is it the experience of anyone over 35 I’ve talked to.
Maybe it worked in the 1950sâ€¦
Maybe it works in careers driven by successive degree requirements (e.g. medicine)
We get trained to think in terms of one-step-leads-to-another by 18 years of linear schooling.
So: plan less and be more. Hang out with good people doing good stuff and grab opportunity as it passes by.
2. Being the boss makes for a good life.
Have you ever worked closely with a CEO? It can be a great job, but it can also suck. Like any job, it requires a certain temperament and set of skills.
So: find jobs that suit your skills and temperament, don’t assume that the “oooh! isn’t that amazing” jobs will be good for you.
3. “Self-made” people exist.
The most self-made person alive still relied on millions of others to provide financial markets, schools, sewers, and the infrastructure that allowed them to go off and become “self-made.”
So: Recognize interdependency and build your life around positive interdependency. And when you want to learn to emulate a “self-made” person, pay attention to all the ways they weren’t self-made; that’s where the learning is. (And by the way, they may not be helpful in pointing out ways that contradict their myth.)
4. Hard work and skill will be appropriately rewarded.
Bear Sterns CEO cashed out for “only” $60 million. Cleaning lady @ $8/hour must work two jobs just to pay rent and still doesn’t make enough to save anything. ‘Nuff said.
So: understand what is rewarded (by money, power, respect, affection, time off, flexibility, freedom) and do that. If you want money, finance is the surest way to get it.
5. Do a good job and you’ll get ahead.
So: See #4. Pay special attention to what the people who will promote you want to see. Don’t assume it’s results.
6. I’ll work now and do what I love when I’ve made my first million, cured cancer, etc.
Management consulting firms and investment banks use this lie as a recruiting tool.
Dangerous strategy, and I know very few who’ve pulled it off. If you don’t do it, you’re left at mid-life trapped in a career you don’t like, with a non-transferable resume, and a network composed of people who are the last ones in the world who could help you do what you love. But boy, could they help you get even further in the career you despise.
So: Factor in your passions and ideals from day one.
7. Intelligence matters.
Up to a point. After that point, it can threaten people. It’s only useful insofar as you have the people/political/marketing skills to get your ideas in play. Even then, unless you’re perfect, you run the risk of overconfidence.
So: take classes when you need them, but stop assuming more knowledge is the answer to every problem. As a Fortune 500 ceo once confided: “business really just isn’t rocket science. In fact, to a smart person, it’s kinda boringâ€¦”
8. Achievement matters.
Actually not. Who you know and who thinks well of you probably matters at least as much as what you’ve achieved, if not more.
So: don’t get too caught up in building that great company, finishing that piece of art, or whatever. Yes, getting things done can be good. But if you enjoy and learn from the things that don’t get done, that may be enough.
9. We can control our lives.
Sickness, death, lotteries, luck, and love all happen. My friend just moved from Washington D.C. to Las Cruces, NM, where his snuggle-bunny has a job. That sure wasn’t planned for.
So: go with the flow. Learn to accept the things you can’t control. Be o.k. with that. Enjoy the process and don’t sweat it if you don’t reach the outcome. (That said, give it your best shot if you really want it.)
From Harvard Business School’s Working Knowledge October 25, 2004
Being at or near the the top of your organization, everyone wants a piece of you. So they send you e-mail. It makes you feel important. Don’t you love it? Really? Then, please take some of mine! Over 100 real e-mails come in each day. At three minutes apiece, it will take five hours just to read and respond. Let’s not even think about the messages that take six minutes of work to deal with. Shudder. I’m buried in e-mail and chances are, you’re not far behind. For whatever reason, everyone feels compelled to keep you "in the loop."
Fortunately, being buried alive under electronic missives forced me to develop coping strategies. Let me share some of the nonobvious ones with you. Together, maybe we can start a revolution.
The problem is that readers now bear the burden Before e-mail, senders shouldered the burden of mail. Writing, stamping, and mailing a letter was a lot of work. Plus, each new addressee meant more postage, so we thought hard about whom to send things to. (Is it worth spending thirty-two cents for Loren to read this letter? Nah….)
E-mail bludgeoned that system in no time. With free sending to an infinite number of people now a reality, every little thought and impulse becomes instant communication. Our most pathetic meanderings become deep thoughts that we happily blast to six dozen colleagues who surely can’t wait. On the receiving end, we collect these gems of wisdom from the dozens around us. The result: Inbox overload.
("But my incoming e-mail is important," you cry. Don’t fool yourself. Time how long you spend at your inbox. Multiply by your per-minute wage(*) to find out just how much money you spend on e-mail. If you can justify that expense, far out—you’re one of the lucky ones. But for many, incoming e-mail is a money suck. Bonus challenge: do this calculation companywide.)
(*) Divide your yearly salary by 120,000 to get your per-minute wage.
Taming e-mail means training the senders to put the burden of quality back on themselves.
How you can send better e-mail What’s the best way to train everyone around you to better e-mail habits? You guessed it: You go first. First, you say, "In order for me to make you more productive, I’m going to adopt this new policy to lighten your load…" Demonstrate a policy for a month, and if people like it, ask them to start doing it too.
Use a subject line to summarize, not describe.
People scan their inbox by subject. Make your subject rich enough that your readers can decide whether it’s relevant. The best way to do this is to summarize your message in your subject.
Subject: Deadline discussion
Subject: Recommend we ship product April 25th
Give your reader full context at the start of your message.
Too many messages forwarded to you start with an answer—"Yes! I agree. Apples are definitely the answer"—without offering context. We must read seven included messages, notice that we were copied, and try to figure out what apples are the answer to. Even worse, we don’t really know if we should care. Oops! We just noticed there are ten messages about apples. One of the others says "Apples are definitely not the answer." And another says, "Didn’t you get my message about apples?" But which message was sent first? And which was in response to which? ARGH!
It’s very, very difficult to get to the core of the issue.
You’re probably sending e-mail because you’re deep in thought about something. Your reader is too, only they’re deep in thought about something else. Even worse, in a multi-person conversation, messages and replies may arrive out of order. And no, it doesn’t help to include the entire past conversation when you reply; it’s rude to force someone else to wade through ten screens of messages because you’re too lazy to give them context. So, start off your messages with enough context to orient your reader.
To: Billy Franklin From: Robert Payne Subject: Re: Re: Re: Please bring contributions to the charity drive
Yes, apples are definitely the answer.
To: Billy Franklin From: Robert Payne Subject: Re: Re: Re: Please bring contributions to the charity drive.
You asked if we want apple pie. Yes, apples are definitely the answer.
When you copy lots of people (a heinous practice that should be used sparingly), mark out why each person should care.
Just because you send a message to six poor coworkers doesn’t mean all six know what to do when they get it. Ask yourself why you’re sending to each recipient, and let them know at the start of the message what they should do with it. Big surprise, this also forces you to consider why you’re including each person.
To: Abby Gail, Bill Fold, Cindy Rella Subject: Web site design draft is done
The Web site draft is done. Check it out in the attached file. The design firm will need our responses by the end of the week.
To: Abby Gail, Bill Fold, Cindy Rella Subject: Web site design draft is done
AG: DECISION NEEDED. Get marketing to approve the draft
BF: PLEASE VERIFY. Does the slogan capture our branding?
CR: FYI, if we need a redesign, your project will slip.
The Web site draft is done. Check it out in the attached file. The design firm will need our responses by the end of the week.
Use separate messages rather than bcc (blind carbon copy).
If you bcc someone "just to be safe," think again. Ask yourself what you want the "copied" person to know, and send a separate message if needed.Yes, it’s more work for you, but if we all do it, it’s less overload.
To: Fred Bcc: Chris
Please attend the conference today at 2:00 p.m.
Please attend the conference today at 2:00 p.m.
Please reserve the conference room for me and Fred today at 2:00 p.m.
Make action requests clear.
If you want things to get done, say so. Clearly. There’s nothing more frustrating as a reader than getting copied on an e-mail and finding out three weeks later that someone expected you to pick up the project and run with it. Summarize action items at the end of a message so everyone can read them at one glance.
Separate topics into separate e-mails … up to a point.
If someone sends a message addressing a dozen topics, some of which you can respond to now and some of which you can’t, send a dozen responses—one for each topic. That way, each thread can proceed unencumbered by the others.
Do this when mixing controversy with mundania. That way, the mundane topics can be taken care of quietly, while the flame wars can happen separately.
BAD MIXING OF ITEMS:
GOOD MIXING OF ITEMS:
We need to gather all the articles by February 1st.
Speaking of which, I was thinking … do you think we should fire Sandy?
Message #1: We need to gather all the articles by February 1st.
Message #2: Sandy’s missed a lot of deadlines recently. Do you think termination is in order?
Combine separate points into one message.
Sometimes the problem is the opposite—sending 500 tiny messages a day will overload someone, even if the intent is to reduce this by creating separate threads. If you are holding a dozen open conversations with one person, the slowness of typing is probably substantial overhead. Jot down all your main points on a piece of (gasp) paper, pick up the phone, and call the person to discuss those points. I guarantee you’ll save a ton of time.
Edit forwarded messages.
For goodness sake, if someone sends you a message, don’t forward it along without editing it. Make it appropriate for the ultimate recipient and make sure it doesn’t get the original sender in trouble.
Sue’s idea, described below, is great.
Let’s take the new design and add sparkles around the border. Bill probably won’t mind; his design sense is so garish he’ll approve anything.
Sue’s idea, described below, is great.
Let’s take the new design and add sparkles around the border…
When scheduling a call or conference, include the topic in the invitation. It helps people prioritize and manage their calendar more effectively.
Subject: Conference call Wednesday at 3:00 p.m.
Subject: Conference call Wednesday at 3:00 p.m. to review demo presentation.
Make your e-mail one page or less.
Make sure the meat of your e-mail is visible in the preview pane of your recipient’s mailer. That means the first two paragraphs should have the meat. Many people never read past the first screen, and very few read past the third.
Understand how people prefer to be reached, and how quickly they respond.
Some people are so buried under e-mail that they can’t reply quickly. If something is important, use the phone or make a follow-up phone call. Do it politely; a delay may not be personal. It might be that someone’s overloaded. If you have time-sensitive information, don’t assume people have read the e-mail you sent three hours ago rescheduling the meeting that takes place in five minutes. Pick up the phone and call.
How to read and receive e-mail
Setting a good example only goes so far. You also have to train others explicitly. Explain to them that you’re putting some systems in place to help you manage your e-mail overload. Ask for their help, and know that they’re secretly envying your strength of character.
Check e-mail at defined times each day.
We hate telemarketers during dinner, so why do we tolerate e-mail when we’re trying to get something useful done? Turn off your e-mail "autocheck" and only check e-mail two or three times a day, by hand. Let people know that if they need to reach you instantly, e-mail isn’t the way. When it’s e-mail processing time, however, shut the office door, turn off the phone, and blast through the messages.
Use a paper "response list" to triage messages before you do any follow-up.
The solution to e-mail overload is pencil and paper? Who knew? Grab a legal pad and label it "Response list." Run through your incoming e-mails. For each, note on the paper what you have to do or whom you have to call. Resist the temptation to respond immediately. If there’s important reference information in the e-mail, drag it to your Reference folder. Otherwise, delete it. Zip down your entire list of e-mails to generate your response list. Then, zip down your response list and actually do the follow-up.
Charge people for sending you messages.
One CEO I’ve worked with charges staff members five dollars from their budget for each e-mail she receives. Amazingly, her overload has gone down, the relevance of e-mails has gone up, and the senders are happy, too, because the added thought often results in them solving more problems on their own.
Train people to be relevant.
If you are constantly copied on things, begin replying to e-mails that aren’t relevant with the single word: "Relevant?" Of course, you explain that this is a favor to them. Now, they can learn what is and isn’t relevant to you. Beforehand, tell them the goal is to calibrate relevance, not to criticize or put them down and encourage them to send you relevancy challenges as well. Pretty soon, you’ll be so well trained you’ll be positively productive!
When someone sends you a ten page missive, reply with three words. "Yup, great idea." You’ll quickly train people not to expect huge answers from you, and you can then proceed to answer at your leisure in whatever format works best for you. If your e-mail volume starts getting very high, you’ll have no choice.
Send out delayed responses.
Type your response directly, but schedule it to be sent out in a few days. This works great for conversations that are nice but not terribly urgent. By inserting a delay in each go-around, you both get to breathe easier.
(In Outlook, choose Options when composing a message and select Do not deliver before. In Eudora, hold down the Shift key as you click Send.)
Yes, ignore e-mail. If something’s important, you’ll hear about it again. Trust me. And people will gradually be trained to pick up the phone or drop by if they have something to say. After all, if it’s not important enough for them to tear their gaze away from the hypnotic world of Microsoft Windows, it’s certainly not important enough for you to take the time to read.
Your only solution is to take action
Yeah, yeah, you have a million reasons why these ideas can never work in your workplace. Hogwash. I use every one of them and can bring at least a semblance of order to my inbox. So choose a technique and start applying it. While you practice, I’ll be on vacation, accumulating a 2,000 message backlog for when I get home. If you want to know how well I cope, just send along an e-mail and ask….
Your little voice may have all the answers you need.
Have you ever wondered how certain corrupt businesspeople can keep spouting great, moral words while doing the exact opposite in their behavior? You wonder how they can wax eloquent about the need to give customers high-quality products while they happily substitute inferior quality raw materials to save costs. You wonder: are they insane? Probably not. Yes, they hear voices in their head. But we all do that. The problem is that they’re listening to the wrong ones.
In a New York Times article today, John Tierney discusses the science behind hypocrisy and how we fool ourselves. It seems when we distract our conscious mind, we listen mainly to our “gut” (or our “heart,” depending on how poetic an image you prefer), and we know when we’re doing The Wrong Thing. When our conscious minds are free, however, we use themâ€”to self-justify. When we engage in hypocritical or anti-social behavior, our conscious mind goes to work creating justifications so we believe we’re doing the right thing, even when we aren’t.
In the past several years, I’ve become more aware of my own “heart voice.” When I have a troubling decision to make, or strong ambivalence about a situation, I sit quietly. Actually, my brain is usually shrieking gibberish about how unfair I’m being treated, or about how I don’t deserve what’s happening, or about how I’m an utter and complete failure at life because I missed “9 Down” in today’s New York Times crossword puzzle. So here’s this Shrieking Monster in my head, and I let it rant while putting attention on the middle of my chest. Then when the Shrieking Monster stops to take a breath, I quickly ask, “What should I do in this situation?”
Then I sit. After a few minutes, beneath the Monster comes a little, quiet voice. It’s barely even in words. And it has an answer.
The moment the answer comes, I know it’s the right one for me. It’s almost always the moral thing, the ethical thing, the loving thing, the passionate thing. In some weird way, it’s the answer I already knew was right, but just wouldn’t admit to myself. It took a chat with the Little Voice to bring it to the place where it could be heard over the Shrieking Monster voice.
The Shrieking Monster is the one that usually pushes me to do stupid things. It goads me to yell at people when I’m frustrated, to get petulant and childish when I could be forging alliances, and to beat myself up when I don’t do well, even if I did my best. The Little Voice, though, is my own internal Dear Abby: its advice is excellent, even if its hairstyle could stand some updating.
If you’ve never tried this, give it a shot. Ponder a decision that’s giving you angst. Maybe it’s an ethical quandry, or an issue with a co-worker, or that persistent fantasy about wrapping your boss in duct tape upside down, hanging from the ceiling. Choose something really, really important, like: is it fair that I always have to spend the 3 minutes to type up action items after a meeting?
Sit quietly with the situation. Your Shrieking Monster will helpfully point out how unfair it is that you have to type those action items, how your fingers ache, how it’s probably carpel tunnel syndrome and you’ll be crippled for life, and how you really deserve to be the boss and are just not deeply appreciated. Then sit quietly and listen to the Little Voice behind the shrieking monster. It just might have some good advice.
If it seems reasonable, give it a shot. You might find yourself acting more ethically, more morally, more professionally, and more happily. In other words, you just may find your little voice is the key to acting asâ€”not just aspiring to beâ€”your Very Best Self.
On a recent birthday I was looking back at the strategies that my friends from high school and college and I employed to get where we are today. We assumed that success would bring happiness, and as far I can tell, we were wrong. It turns out that the two are separate, even though marketers would have us believe otherwise.The slogan for Cadillac is “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit.” Of course what your mind fills in is Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. As if a $50,000.00 car will actually make you happier. And maybe it will. But keep in mind, if your life fundamentally sucks, it’s gonna keep on sucking the moment you step out of the car and onto the concrete. So, if the two are different—if happiness and success are not the same—what’s the best life strategy?
We are certainly taught to believe that being successful will make us happy. Society tells us, our parents tell us, our teachers tell us, students in high school as young as 12 and 13 are already being lectured about college. I take it to an extreme. I have a 5-year-old nephew, I am thinking about his college, I am thinking about his high school. It’s ridiculous; I am missing his entire childhood because I am so busy thinking about making him successful in the assumption that thus will he be happy.
I also find that in career coaching new MBAs, they have an almost religious belief that they can plan out a 20-year career path. They say things like, “I will make my money and then I will be happy. Then I will do the things that are meaningful.” Then, then, then. As if, among other things, you can even control whether “then” ever arrives.
So strategy number 1 is: pursue success and hope for happiness. The other strategy is to pursue happiness and meaning and find a way to make a living doing it. This is the strategy where happiness leads to success. Which one is better? Let’s see…
If you go for success and you become successful and you find a way to be happy doing it, yeah, you’re happy and successful. If you go for happiness and find a way to make money doing it, yeah, you’re happy and successful. So, in the case where you can achieve both, it doesn’t really matter which strategy you choose, you end up happy and successful.
But the point we rarely consider is what happens if everything doesn’t work out. If you define your life as pursuing success but you don’t actually find a way to be happy while doing it, or you get to that point where you have the money and now you don’t even know what makes you happy because you have spent the whole time pursuing success instead of happiness, well, great. You’re successful, but you’re not happy. You walk into an empty house surrounded by beautiful gorgeous things. You have a lot of friends and they like you. Why? Because you have a lot of nice things that they want to borrow. You buy a cat, the cat puts with you because you leave its automated feeding bowl in place while you go work at office. It actually hates you because you’re never around. You are too busy working, but at least it will pretend to purr every now and then.
On the other hand, if you go for happiness and aren’t successful, at least you will be happy and you will have a life full of meaning. They found one of the big things that helps people be happy, for example, it is having family and friends and community. So, if you are happy, but don’t quite make it to successful, you may wander into your one-bedroom tiny apartment and be surrounded by friends and family and people who love you and a cat that purrs because it recognizes you—it knows who you are and it appreciates the fact that you feed it. You may not have the money, but you will be happy.
So, in the case where the future works exactly the way we want it to, it doesn’t matter whether you pursue success and then find happiness or whether you pursue happiness and then find success. But in the case where you can’t guarantee the final outcome, it makes so much more sense to pursue happiness and hopefully you can find a way to be successful doing it.
I have spent my life up until very recently doing the opposite. I have spent my life pursuing success under the assumption that it would make me happy and it is not clear that it’s been worth it. Missing a weekend with friends so that I can work hard and earn enough money that I can take time off and … spend a weekend with friends. Hello? This doesn’t exactly make a whole lot of sense.
What I would like to invite you to do today is to examine your own life and your own motivations—How do you work? Are you pursuing success assuming that someday will bring happiness? Are you pursuing happiness looking for way to be successful while doing it? Are you getting both? And I would invite you to play around a little bit. Try doing something from the other camp and find out if that works for you.
If you’re a Type-A Personality Workaholic, skip a day of work, call in sick and do something that makes you happy, that’s meaningful, and that could be a taste of the life you could be living right now, maybe in exchange for money but maybe not. Because when you pursue happiness, you never know what kind of opportunities arise.
I am now one year into a three-year experiment of living my life to the extent that I can get my Type-A Personality to do so. I pursue the things that make me happy and have meaning. The bizarre part is my life is less predictable than ever before. The things I am getting involved with weren’t even on the radar screen a year-and-a-half ago, however, some of them are grander and more exciting than anything I could possibly have planned. Make a choice. Pursue success and find happiness or pursue happiness and find success. Either way you have a shot at both, but in one case you guarantee you will be happy.
The love of money isn’t the root of all evil; arithmetic is the root of all evil. More specifically, counting.
Don’t get me wrong; counting was a wonderful invention. It has its uses. We can keep track of kids: “Are all 5 kids here? Let’s see, 1… 2… 3… 4… where’s Billy?” We can keep track of time. “He’s working overtime in the salt mines, honey. Instead of 12 hours, he’s working 14 hours today. He’ll be home at … 9, 10. Yes, 10 p.m.” And we can keep track of money: “He gets paid $1.49/hour working overtime, so our bank balance will be $11.37 … $12.37 … $13.37 … $13.86 after Billy gives us his share.” In fact, they remind us over and over in MBA school that “What gets measured, gets managed.”
So where’s the problem? This is evil? This gave us the industrial-friggin’-revolution. This sounds great!!
We measure the wrong stuff
Well, the problem starts when we choose what to measure. We often measure what doesn’t lead to our goal, and expect the measuring to magically create the managing.
Want profit? Let’s count expenses. Tell all managers to submit weekly reports of their team’s expenses. Let’s call it a TPS Report, and count how many TPS reports people send, to make sure they’re doing their job (which has silently morphed from “running a profitable business” to “submitting TPS reports”). Well, whoopie. We’ve added a whole layer of useless counting, and then another layer to count who is and isn’t counting. Since we don’t actually know what to do with the silly TPS report, we slide further from profitability. We’re counting the wrong thing.
Or how about sick days? There’s a hoot. “You only get six sick days.” Nice. Like that’s controllable. If you’re sick for seven days, come on in and give it to everyone else in your department, so everyone has to take six days off. You can measure sick days, but the measure is useless.
Seemingly meaningful measurements … aren’t
Then we make up measurements that mean nothing and try to manage those. “Let’s rank our employees. Then we can fire the bottom 10%.” Sounds easy; isn’t easy. (Sadly, however, it is a much-publicized Jack Welch policy.) How much time will managers spend on this ranking exercise? Do they apply consistent standards that are directly related to the company’s goals? Do we fire the 10% of managers whose ranking skill is in the bottom 10%? Who decides that?
Ranking is hard. Really hard. In fact, in 1963, psychologist George Miller’s famous paper “The Magic Number 7 +/- 2” presented results showing people can make ranking distinctions between 5 to 9 items, and then we pretty much lose track. If you think you can accurately rank a 250-person department, you’re deluded and thus in the bottom 10%; it’s time to pack your bags.
Even if you can rank, can you use the rankings for action? We want to punt the bottom 10% of the company. We can’t really compare an accountant against a design engineer, so our fresh new Harriford MBA, Darren, suggests we eliminate 10% of each department. That will add up to 10% of the company.
But what if our 30 design engineers rock, while our 30 accountants all suck eggs? As a company, we want to fire six accountants (10% of 60 employees) and no design engineers. But firing 10% of each department means we leave three mediocre accountants standing, and three rockin’ design engineers out of work. That’s clearly wrong. But we get one benefit: we know Darren didn’t understand the logic of firing, so we know he’s in the bottom 10% and should be fired. Success! We have at least one confirmed cost savings from this exercise.
Measurement turns us evil
I know you’re asking: what in heaven’s name does this have to do with spirituality, morality, and/or the rest of our lives? (If you weren’t asking that, don’t worry, just go with the flow.)
Here’s where the evil comes in. We only measure so we can make decisions about those measurements and change our behavior. But we do this by judging the measurements as “good” or “bad.” When we’re measuring a “bad” trend, we panic. We’re afraid. We’re angry. We get frustrated, anxious, mean, jealous, violent, and nasty.
How do people act when they feel anxious, mean, jealous, violent, and nasty? Fortunately, we live in a Highly Evolved Society, so we meditate for five minutes, do some yoga, and we’re fine. NOT! Most people want to get rid of the bad feelings. Some fudge the numbers and play financial games. Think Enron. Some people hit something. Some people treat everyone around like crap. And some people blame.
Yes, they blame. They blame colleagues. “Sales are down! Sally distracted me so I lost the big prospect.” They blame loved ones. “I went over my sick day quota since I had to take Billy to treatment for his Black Lung disease.” They blame the government.”If it weren’t for the (Republicans/Democrats), (the economy/the occupation/global warming/life/love/happiness) would be better.” And they blame themselves. “I’m just a failure.”
All because they counted, then got emotionally wedded to the counting.
What counts and what doesn’t?
I’ve been talking so far about business, only not really. We count the wrong things in business, we count the wrong things in life. We go to pieces when our business counts go off-track, we go to pieces when our real-life counts go off-track. And remember, real life counts more. Where do you get caught in the counting?
Some of us count who’s done more housework, us or our spouse. Some of us count the dollars in our savings account. Some of us count what someone does to prove they love us. Some of us count how pious our neighbors are. It all turns into judgment, and from there, into emotion. When the counting is going the way we want, we think life is good. When the counting goes the other way, we get upset.
The upset is extra, though! It’s our reaction to the counting. The counting doesn’t cause the problem; it’s our stories about the counting that cause the problem.
Let’s fix this. Let counting be counting. Let emotion be emotion. All this score-keeping, counting, and measuring is made up. It’s all fantasy. It’s a convenient tool for making decisions. But it’s not real. And it’s certainly not worth turning yourself into an ogre, feeling horrible, and abusing yourself and your loved ones.
What if you count and discover your bank account isn’t high enough to send your kids to college? Don’t get upset. Use it as information and change your savings plan. But don’t beat yourself up. You can’t do anything for your kids that way, except set a bad example. Use the information to stay centered and work with the people you love to fix the situation.
What if you count and discover your spouse overcharged on the credit card? You can fly into a rage, or you can sit down with your spouse, love each other tremendously, and decide from that place how you’ll deal with the situation. I used the “fly-into-a-rage” method several times. It didn’t pay the bill, nor did it make me an attractive snuggle partner, even to our stuffed animals. The counting-as-information plus love-then-problem-solving works way better.
What if you count pounds, and discover you have more than you want? You can get depressed and eat a chocolate cake to help yourself feel better (Stever’s diet advice: learn to distinguish “sugar rush” from “feel better”). Or realize the number’s just information you can use to change your diet. If you’re going to diet, doing it from a place of fun makes it … well … more fun. And if you’re not going to diet, then at least enjoy the chocolate cake. But don’t let counting trick you into not-dieting, and also not enjoying the cake. That’s plain foolishness!
And what if you count and discover you’re not as rich as Darren, despite your superior skills? Or you’re not as rich as the goal you set at age 23? You can call yourself a failure and jump out of a plane without a parachute. That’s one solution. But maybe you can notice that a number is just a number, while you’re an entire human being who has much more to offer than a number.
Counting is optional. If you stop counting and look around, you just might find you’re warm, dry, full, and reading the web. And that’s not such a bad place to be. So count only when it’s useful, don’t take it too seriously, and feel good either way. Move your attention from counting to living. Put your attention on the things that make you feel happy, joyous, and grateful. If you must count, count those, and every day, count a little higher. It’s your life, and only you can make your counting count.
Stever gave a fantastic workshop on career transition to an audience of MIT alumni. His unique experience as a programmer, trainer, startup founder and executive coach gave him such a broad perspective that he was able to respond to each question with deep insight derived from firsthand experience. The attendees were so engaged and got so much value out of it that many stayed to talk to Stever afterwards. Some stayed for two more hours and didn’t leave until 11pm!