Sunday, November 8, 2015

What are your values? And how do you find them?

What happened to you?

How have you been? So a friend wrote me this week and asked why he hasn't seen any posts from me recently.  We'll call him Evan, even though his real name is Bryan.  So, do you know what I told Bryan?

I basically said: "Well, I like writing and all, but I really want to prioritize my career.  Maybe if I found a way to make some money writing, I'd do more of it."  Something like that.

Pretty uninspiring.  Then, I felt bad I actually replied that way.  A money-grubbing, whiny way.  Well, that made me pause and think about why I do what I do, and why I write?  Certainly, pragmatism goes a long way in life, but have you thought about what motivates your actions?

Why you do certain things in life?  And if you dug into those motivations for your actions, you get into incentives and into beliefs.

You work because you're paid to work.  That's an incentive.  You want to make money.  And maybe if someone offers you a bonus, you work a little harder.  That's incentive.  It makes people do good things and bad things.  The lure of profit incents a drug trafficker to smuggle illegal drugs across the border, even though it's dangerous and could land you in jail (to say nothing of the potential harm to user).

As for beliefs, if you think you're going to die next month, you'll act very differently from you are today (when most you think you'll be alive for many more decades).  People save money for retirement because they think the world will be similar to what we know today, and they want to have the means to live into old age.  You'd stop saving your money if the doctor told you you have malignant cancer that may be fatal.  I don't know.  Maybe you'll live it up more today instead of deferring living life until retirement.

Ancient Story of Values

Most people know who Adam and Eve are; the first couple in the creation story of the Bible.  Their first two children were sons named Cain and Abel.  Cain was a farmer and Abel tended to flocks (livestock).  Both make offerings to God.  While God accepts Abel's offerings, God rejects Cain's offerings.  Cain becomes angry, and out of jealousy, strikes and kills Abel.  First murder is a fraternicide.

Does God seem unfair?

I once read a speculation by the famous philosopher Immanuel Kant.  He mused that perhaps this episode represented the conflict of values between a nomadic society transitioning to to an agrarian one.  Those who tended to livestock moved around and lived in the field.  They were closer to the stars, nature, and to God.  Farming, on the other hand, demanded people settle down and construct infrastructure.  Over time, farming cultures build sophisticated civilizations.  They grow distant from God.

Instead of this analysis, I heard a values-based analysis.  The story is in Bible's Genesis chapter 4.  It makes an interesting qualitative difference between Abel's and Cain's offerings.

verse 3 - "In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord."
verse 4 - "And Abel also brought an offering - fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock.  The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering."

The theological reading is that intentions are different from someone who gives the first stock versus someone who brings something in the course of time.  The latter is merely giving a budget line item.  Like a tax.  It's not just that the first fruit is better, as wine connoiseurs would know.  The one who gives the firstborn knows he may not have more, but gives it all the same.  Huge difference.

So that was very interesting.  What are your intentions?  And your intentions really reflect your values - what you fundamentally believe is important in your life.  And it is influenced (guided or misguided) by incentives in your life.

How do you dig deeper?

Finding what's important to you isn't simple.  So, to close the loop on this rant, I told Bryan I wanted to write for money, but that's not true.  Clearly, money was on my mind at the time, but I write for the joy of connecting with ideas and with people.  If the only one person got something out of this piece, then it was a worthwhile activity.  And even if no one read it, it gave me a chance to struggle with an important idea for myself.  That's worthwhile.  Nevermind the dollars and cents.

So, what can you do to connect with your own values and discover them further?  What do you love?

In Hackers and Painters, technologist and writer Paul Graham suggests a heuristic for discovering what you love in life.  He suggests simply: "always be producing."  What he means is that if you are always doing something you think is useful, you'll do so until you get bored and start doing something else.  If you don't get bored and keep doing that thing because you love it, well, you've discovered your passion.  In the process, you'll discover something about yourself and what you treasure.

Science supports this idea.  Contrary to what many believe, there is evidence that what you think and believe is affected by what you do.  As we all know, what we think or believe affects how we live.  Which is to say, what you do changes who you become.

I don't think I helped anyone solve her problems this week, but I hope you'll forgive me for the rant while I get back into the habit of writing more regularly.  See you soon!

Sunday, August 9, 2015

How to set your mind to achieve anything - 5 techniques

Last week, I broke down 3 types of organizational tasks to help you understand how you can be better positioned to be outstanding in what you do.  Building on that, I want to focus on shifting your mindset for achievement.

Just a Thought

What’s the big deal about your frame of mind?  Isn’t it all about the technique or about having the right resource to achieve your goals?  Or what about connections you may or may not have?

I hear you.  Hey, remember that scene from Men in Black, where Will Smith’s character, agent J, complains to agent K that it is no time to keep their special weapons hidden (because there are alien battle cruisers approaching earth).  Agent K responds:

“There’s always an Arquillian Battle Cruiser, or a Corillan Death Ray, or an intergalatic plague that is about to wipe out all life on this miserable little planet, and the only way these people can get on with their happy lives is that they DO NOT KNOW ABOUT IT!”

Ignorance is bliss?  Not really.  So, let’s get on with it and lift ourselves out of ignorance and get our minds working for us.

Mind Aid Techniques

1. Use the mental shelf

Sometimes, you can’t help it.  It’s not your fault.  

Life is good.  You’re enjoying the sun.  Then, suddenly thoughts of your ex pop into your head.  Maybe you had associated sun with your ex (or some other thought trigger).  Either way, you’re suddenly feeling regret and remorse.

You now have a choice.  You can dwell or pass on that thought.  You can have a pity party for yourself, or you can choose to be strong and move on.

I call this two shelves, but it could be two paths.  Either way, you can go one way or the other, but not both.  It just takes a split second decision, and then you’re on that path.

Use the mental image of the two paths or two shelves.  Good thought?  Add it to the positive shelf.  Crappy thought?  Just chuck it to the discard bin.

2. Finite resource reminder

I don’t exactly know how many heart beats my heart will beat, but I know it’s not infinite.  Remembering that helps me apply rule #1 with consistency and urgency.

Those finite heartbeats mean that you’ll also have a finite number of thoughts in your life.  So, remember not to waste it on past too much.  Sure, you may have to reflect on your failures to learn from it, but like the multiplication table, knowing it once will be enough.  You don’t need study it over and over.

Or in the context of work, leave no room for negative thoughts.  You can either choose to say ‘that’s hard, I can’t do it’ or ‘yes I can, now how shall I go about it’?  

Very different thoughts, and very different outcomes.  And it depends on how you view that limited resource called your energy and thoughts.  Make the right choice, and it will grow.

3. Positive Affirmation

Hey Siri, who’s the fairest of them all?  (Try, “tell me I’m good looking.”)

Well, there are many scientific and non-scientific writings about the physical impact of a mantra.  It is mind over matter stuff.  I won’t go deep into it, but I’m sure you’ve experienced the feel-good of someone giving you a compliment.

The neat thing is you can compliment yourself.

Suffice it to say that successful people apply their personal mantras of success and happiness: people like Tony Robbins (the motivation and performance guru) and Oraph Winfrey.  They believed in themselves even when others didn’t.  They kept on believing in themselves until everyone else did, too.

You can do it, too.  Believe in yourself, and not only that, say it out aloud.

4. Make it incremental and automate it

Cool.  #1 - #3 are basically exhortations to positive thinking.  But, you know that things are easier said than done.  It’s stuff that you already knew, but it still doesn’t translate into results.  

What gives?

One of the messages that I keep iterating is that you want to find ways to break your goals down into small steps, and then make an incremental progress (like the turtle in the tortoise and hare story).  For example, if you know that there is an environmental trigger that starts you down a negative path, take steps to begin to dull that trigger, however small the step.

Another message is to save yourself from yourself.  I mean, automate things when you can.  How?  For example, I wrote about how you’re a product of the five people you surround yourself with.  

If you stick with good budgeters, you’ll become a good budgeter, even if you naturally suck.  If you stick around vegetarians, then you’ll suddenly find yourself killing less cattle.  It just works.

(And the ultimate ways to get automation working for you is to build good habits.  People like James Clear and Tim Ferriss - in his 4 Hour Work Week blog - write extensively about this.)

5. Dig deep, and remember that day

There’s no doubt that in difficult times, it makes the world of difference to have a strong anchor.  Often, when things aren’t going well, we can rely on a trusted friend or advisor or family.  We can whine, we can vent, we can seek counsel.

At other times though, you’ll want to keep in your mental reserves those times when you were superb.  Whatever it was.  Maybe the time you won your high school sprint.  Or the time you made someone’s day.  Whatever is meaningful to you.  You can draw on these memories when you are down to turn things around from I can’t to I can mindset.


Honestly, I’m no Oprah or Tony Robbins.  And I don’t want to be.  So, I won’t quit my day job.  But, I hope you’ll experiment with these and other mindset techniques to help yourself into the path of achievement.  Good luck!

As I mentioned previously, starting next week, I want to start writing more concrete stories, specifically reflecting on my own career.

I first want to reflect a little bit about power and presence with a post about that time I thought an intern was a VP and the story of David and Goliath as my dad told me.  Then, I want to talk about taking the long-view and taking incremental steps, and how to do it.  I’ll also tell you about that time that I thought I needed to learn to code, and why I was wrong.

Till then, may the Force be with You!

Further Reading

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Sunday, August 2, 2015

Three kinds of learning for a team player

Do the best you can be in small things.  While it is a powerful advice, it is one of those things that sound good to say, but is really hard to do.

Your intentions are good, but the reality often falls short.

In this post, I want to help you with that.  If you’re busy, feel free to skip ahead to “possibility thinking” section at the bottom.  I really want to know your take on it.

First, about doing the best, what was Lyndon Johnson’s approach to it?  He believed that if he did “everything that you can do, then you will win.”  And by everything, he meant the brute force way, knocking on more doors, calling on more people, campaigning in more cities, and so forth.  

Sadly, I don’t think that’s a plausible strategy for the majority of people.  It certainly isn’t for me: I get too tired to do everything.  I’m sorry, but I’m lazy.

If I get in the ring with Mike Tyson, I’m going to lose.  Every single time.

I think the trick is instead to figure out where and how you can do your best work.  Where can you apply leverage?  In an organization, it takes some reflection to figure out where that is.  Let’s put it into the context of different types of tasks and see how you can approach them.

3 Task Types and Your Role

Simple Sequential

During Renaissance, a master painter often painted only the faces and hands in a large fresco.  His apprentices would paint the backgrounds and clothing of characters.  Those objects were easier to paint.  Faces and the emotional expressions are exceedingly hard to paint well.  Only a master could do them well.

But for the master to put his finishing touch, the painting had to be outlined and painted first.  An art masterpiece took shape in a sequence.


In an industrial age, the assembly line has replaced the craftsman master’s studio.  But, the idea is similar.

In this context, you have a tool and a specific tasks you are expected to do a well.  But, like the mechanical pieces in the assembly line, you’re an interchangeable part.  If you get sick (or defective), they can bring in another part (faster, younger, cheaper).

Don’t dwell here.  If this is all your skills allow you to do, work hard to add a layer to your skills.

Layered Sequential

Take a child who is learning to play the violin.  In the beginning, the child plays simple scales to build and associate muscle memory with musical notes.  Scales can seem repetitive and boring.  That’s by design.  Without these foundational exercises, a violinist will be unable to handle more complex passages.

Once a violinist masters the basic mechanical aspects of playing, she can focus on nuances of interpretation.  Where should the sound rise and fall to elicit the proper emotional response?  What is the texture of the sound that she should produce here or there?

In reality, the foundational layer and more complex layer improve in tandem, and not in sequence.  The more she practices, the more she appreciates the finer distinctions of both the difficult and easy portions of a musical passage.  She will notice new faults and opportunities that she had not appreciated before.

The musician makes time for these exercises (etudes).  The runner puts in the mileage.  The boxer spars and punches the punching bag.  The firefighters drill.  This is the way of things.

Complex Network

Finally, as you master sets of simple skills through practice and exposure, you can begin to formulate more complex skills.  

Using the musical analogy, you can think of the conductor’s skills.  The conductor must listen to the many different lines of music simultaneously.  She will craft textures of sounds of music and draw out colors from the orchestra.  Doing so without a foundational knowledge of melodies and and harmonies would be impossible.

You probably are in a profession where complex problem solving skills are important.  Often, you do not have pre-defined parameters or solutions.  Rather, drawing on your knowledge of your environment, and using a deep experience, you can craft a unique solution to a problem.

Possibility Thinking

Sequential thinking is thinking inside the walls.  The walls are the rules and expectations imposed by those around you.  It is the violinist who plays only the notes she sees on the paper.

Complex and network thinking helps you transcend such boundaries of social convention.  It helps you break down the wall of “this is how we have always done things.”

I still meet many people who are locked into sequential thinking.  One college graduate I met talked about how competitive a graduate program is, citing admission statistics and average test scores of the entering class.  However, the reality is that standardized admission processes exist as much for reasons of fairness as they are for convenience.  

For those inventive enough to get to know the admissions officers in person and prove to them their capabilities, the application process becomes a mere formality.

Next week, I’d like to dwell more on positive thinking, specifically outlining some techniques you can use to talk your mind into helping you see possibilities and achieve big things.  In everything, those incremental small efforts will pay off, but understanding the larger context will ensure that you will be more successful.

Then, in the following weeks, I’d like to reflect on some stories about advancing your career.  I mean, I’ll talk about my own experiences, because that’s what I know.  Some will be tactical, some strategic, and I hope they will be helpful.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

I want to get to know you

A few months ago, a friend of mine told me about a former naval academy grad who is writing full-time.

I am not the best

I went to Dave Booda’s site and subscribed to his Boodaism.

Dave is full of wisdom and insight about everyday living as an ordinary American.  How can you draw meaning from your work and life when you seemingly can’t be one of those uber-successful billionaires on TV?  We aren’t all Tony Stark of Ironman: rich, brilliant, confident, good looking, and seemingly invincible.  It’s okay, Dave shows you how to be cool as you are.

Dave is a better writer than I am.  He is clearer and more insightful in what he writes.

I don’t know much

Nor do I have some special knowledge that can help you.  James Clear.  He’s a local North Carolinian.  And on his site, James uses science to help you do more with less.  His insights can help you form habits to make you into a mean, lean, git ‘er done machine.

Nope, I don’t know much about scientification.

So, why do I bother writing?

If I had a special power

For one thing, I like writing.  And while my audience may be small, I am happy speaking to a small group of friends.  Plus, it’s therapeutic for me.  And if I had to dig a little deeper, I can say I enjoy hearing out a friend about her problem and doing something small to help.

For another, it’s like life.  Just ‘cause you’re no Shakespeare, doesn’t mean you should stop writing.  Just ‘cause you’re not Einstein doesn’t mean you should drop out of school (he did his best thinking while a patent office clerk, anyway).  You have to start somewhere.  And like the tortoise, if you keep going, you’ll reach the finish line.

But, if I had a special power, it’s helping a friend.  I’m a good advisor, a Spock to a Kirk.

And that brings me to say: I want to get to know you.

What’s on your mind?  What’s keeping you up at night these days?

If you think I could research and write about a topic of interest to you, would you please reply and let me know?  What can I do to help you?  What would you like to know more about?

As always, thank you for your time.

Check them out

Sunday, July 19, 2015

What would you do if your colleague's dad died?

I’m sure you’ve lost someone close to you.  Whether to time or to disease, no one is free from the grips of death.

In my book on 12 Steps on How to be Happy, I related a story about how a young, non-smoker friend passed away after a fight with lung cancer.  To me, that story was a reminder to say hello to those around you.  They may not always be around.

What would you do?

At my department, a co-worker was missing from work for a few days.  Through the grapevine, I learned that his dad had passed away.

It’s tragic.  He’s about my age.  And I’m visiting my parents this weekend in High Point, NC.  I have been sharing meals with my mom and dad this weekend.

If a friend’s unexpected death was a reminder to connect with those around you now, I wondered what exactly “to connect” means.  It’s one thing to feel sorry for someone and to empathize with them.  But, what can you do?

Do you leave a card with a message of condolence?

Do you bring some food to their house with kind words?

Do you give them a big hug with the conviction that life will go on?

What would you do?

It is so easy to get caught up in the daily business of our lives to pause and sympathize with someone who's life has suddenly been disrupted.  

If it had been your family who passed away, what words and actions would you like to receive from your friends and your colleagues?

What would you do?

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Be the Best You Can Be - However Small

I previously reflected on the story of the tortoise and hare, and how incremental progress can accomplish big goals.  Just as with the post about small gestures with big impact, I want to be better about making small changes to be more effective and happy.

“Go to work every day and make getting better your North Star. Aim at that every day,” - Jim Collins

Reality vs. Fantasy

It’s fun to look for small things in my life to improve.  Why?  

Because, in the past, I often thought about big dreams, but realized looking back, I accomplished very little of those dreams.  When I was younger, I had no context to evaluate the link between planning and outcomes.  Now, looking back over the years, I can see the impact not only in my own life, but in the life of those I know.

More to point, I’d like to harness the power of building on success to continue to grow and develop.

(Fantasy v Reality - These used to popular on Facebook last year)

Two Bios - Bezos and LBJ

There are two stories that come to mind about this.  One is of Jeff Bezos, founder of  The other is of Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ).

There is a famous story of an early Amazon days.  The young and inexperienced CEO Jeff Bezos asked the famous business author Jim Collins for advice.  Bezos admitted in front of his team that he felt was was something “less than a Level 5 Leader.”

(“Level 5 leader” is a leader who has mastered and combined personal humility and will to being a great leader.  Jim Collins wrote many business classics like Good to Great and Built to Last.)

Collins advised Bezos:  “Go to work everyday and make getting better your North Star: Aim at that every day.”

One can argue, Bezos took the advice to heart, and has been doing better everyday for a long time now.


I came across another interesting example of taking small tasks seriously by another famous figure: LBJ.

While a young man in college, LBJ took a temporary teaching job in Cotulla, Texas to earn money to pay for his tuition at San Marcos.  The school was for Mexican students whose parents were mostly workers for the white business owners in that southern corner of Texas.  Other teachers took the job with disdain, and treated Mexican children like something less than people who needed education.

Not so Lyndon Johnson.  He put his heart and soul into the school, getting to work before anyone and leaving after everyone left.  Where the school had no extracurricular activities, he devised new ones and connected with nearby schools to give the kids something to do.  Where the children had no transportation to get to events, he’d call on parents with cars (only few had cars) to get the kids to places.

What struck me was that he did all of this not only because he cared about the job and the kids (he did), but because he understood getting a stellar recommendation from this small gig would help him land other positions thereafter.

What You Can Do

You might be working on a boring task right now in a job that feels static.  Just as LBJ did, understand that how you approach a small task will define the opportunities you are given later.  (In the Bible, there’s a story in the book of Matthew about servants to whom talents are given to invest and grow.  In this story, Jesus rebukes the lazy servant who hid the one talent and did nothing with that talent.)

Or, you might be excited about the challenging task you have.  But, you’re stressed because the goal seems insurmountable.  You understand that this big challenge is like finishing a marathon.  You will complete the 26.2 mile-long race one step at a time.  One step.

Focus on getting better everyday.

Further Reading

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