There’s a white picket fence in my front garden in Cambridge that gets frosted over every winter, and the paint starts to peel. And every winter, I’ll go back every few months, and paint over the areas where the paint has started to get a little scrappy, cut back any weeds, and cut the lawn back.
This is the kind of yard work that takes place in rural England every week, and indeed all over the world. In fact, many of us probably don’t think of it as work at all. But what would happen if, for some reason, we stopped doing it? The yard would get scrappy, and before too long it would bring down the value of the house.
In our working lives, this kind of work is common. It might be checking a business dashboard here or there, tweaking some copy or making a few phone calls. Not work that we tend to consider glamorous in any way. Yet once again, if we were to stop doing it, our sites and apps would begin to rot quite quickly. The last update on the blog would slip to one week, two weeks, maybe more.
We have this tendency to lionize transformational business results, and the effort and personal sacrifice required to achieve them. According to Quartz the ideal formula for a resume (according to Google) is “I achieved x results relative to y benchmark by doing z.” In true Internet style, it’s pitched as “the incredible simple formula for a killer resume.” It reduces results to a single strategy.
Yet while I’m sure this is an effective formula for a resume, I’m not sure it’s the formula for an effective employee. Of many, many corporate mission statements that I’ve read, Global Radio’s perhaps resonates with me the most (emphasis mine):
“Here’s to the obsessive ones who have the courage to say when something isn’t good enough, here’s to the obsessive ones who have the humility to receive those comments well, here’s to the obsessive ones who don’t walk by anything they can put right themselves…”
Whenever I’ve been hiring, these have always been the best people. Some people will deliver a complete transformation or business in a weekend, but then not follow it up with meticulous, dedicated action. You’ll never really know if they’re on form or not, but you’ll indulge the errant ‘genius’ because you know they’re capable of that moment of magic.
It’s a sign of true character when someone realizes that the real work is the stuff that doesn’t feel like work at all. That understands the need to check the analytics dashboard daily and act upon it, the one who is perceptive enough to understand when something can be tweaked and improved, the one who never, ever takes ‘good enough’ as the final outcome.
Think of the reams and reams of business books that have been written over the last thirty years about ‘organizational change’, the way we love to drop in phrases like ‘business leader.’ The cult of the C-suite and expense accounts. The way every damn resume for the past thirty years has been written.
Now look at the business books that have been influential over the past few years. Books like ‘The Lean Startup” which promote constant tinkering (or in business speak, ‘iteration’) and learning. Books like Ben Horowitz’s “The Hard Thing About Hard Things” about having the iron discipline to make smart decisions every day. How about the DevOps phenomenon, which is all about constant data-driven decision-making and course correction?
The future belongs to yard work. It belongs to the work that doesn’t feel glamorous. It belongs to the work that goes un-noticed and unheeded. It belongs to the people who don’t count and log and focus on ‘ending’ their 10,000 hours, they just do them and realize that the real magic happens along the way.
It belongs to the idea that the real value and the real work is the work that doesn’t feel like work at all.
Can I ask you a question: how often do you really listen to people?
To be really brief, I’ve worked with many, many business leaders who class themselves as great listeners.
It’s always seems to be in the top five phrases a leader uses to define themselves (along with ‘strong and clear leadership’).
The interesting thing though is that often, when I speak to their employees, they often feel that they aren’t actually connecting that well with their leader. They feel like they haven’t got a voice in company decision-making.
I don’t believe that many leaders mean to come over as insensitive or uncaring when they listen. A lot of the time, I don’t even actually think they know they’re doing it.
There’s just a part of them that hits autopilot about a third of the way through the conversation, where they subconsciously move from listening to preparing the answer in their head.
What they don’t realise a lot of the time is that the person on the other end of the conversation isn’t seeking to be heard, but to be understood.
These are subtly, but critically, different. They’re seeking to feel that they have a level of control. They’re seeking to feel like the leader understands them and their story. They’re trying to find a partner on that journey.
Often, the last thing they’re looking for is advice – or a canned leadership mantra. And when you give that to people, you really are doing them an incredible disservice.
You’re stopping short of throwing yourself fully into the conversation. You think you’re talking to the other person, but you’re subconsciously talking about you.
And neither of you are really getting value out of the exchange.
It’s not difficult to resolve. It begins with a pause before speaking.
A second longer to reflect on what the other person has said and formulating a response.
A deeper understanding of what is required of you out of that exchange. And that’s really it.
I reached a point in my career about six months ago when it was time to take a step back.
There’s no right time for a career epiphany – sometimes you can have them too early, sometimes you can have them way too late.
My mother spent 25 years in a job she wasn’t fully committed too, because she didn’t realise that it was too late.
I’d had a successful few years freelancing. I’d grown a business from scratch, brought in major new logo clients from my own hustle.
I’d travelled the world and worked in a number of different cities.
A couple of times a year I like to go away for a week to another country and think about how I want to move my career forward in the next six months.
And this time, I had had a few good ideas about what I wanted to do with the next five years of my life.
And I remember my overriding emotion being just “How”? Just how am I going to manage to get to where I am now, to where I want to be?
With the kind of ambitions that I had at that time – hitting mid twenties – they don’t just happen overnight. You have to nurture them. To grow them.
And I just felt that I couldn’t do it in the way I was going about things. I wouldn’t have been true to myself if I had these ambitions but knew in my heart of hearts that I couldn’t support them.
I’d gotten good at managing my workload, but knew that I just couldn’t do what I was doing and try to hit the next level.
So I took a good look at my entire career to date and re-evaluated. I had to step back and focus on one thing if I was going to achieve more.
And it turns out that you can do some pretty cool stuff if you focus on becoming world-class at one thing. You regain your focus, your purpose and your vision.
You feel much less drained at the end of every working day, because your mental energy is not going into fighting minor battles.
You regain an understanding of why it is that you are doing what you’re doing – and what the end goal is.
And people will gravitate towards you. People want to back success in other people, and there is nothing more successful than a person associated with doing one thing really well.
Graduating students often ask me for advice on how to take their first step on the ladder. I was privileged to have some people smarter than me to work alongside.
But not all of them have reached their potential. They haven’t exactly ended up in dead end roles, but they don’t have fantastic achievements next to their name either. And often after a few years, they come to me and say they’re burned out.
Because working at a job where you’re working on lots of different things will tire you out. And it’ll come right the way back to your resume – with a common thread of successful stories to tell.
Everyone has the capability to be world-class at exactly one thing.
Pick what that one thing is.
Be true to yourself. And good luck.
I’ve just come off the ice rink for the first time in 18 months, and it’s been a powerful experience for me. I began ice skating in earnest while at Oxford – the rink was only a block away from where I lived – and I found it a great, and social way of getting exercise.
I could go out, connect with friends and listen to music without getting off my face on alcohol. I gradually became addicted to it, and was going 3 or 4 times a week at the height. Eventually, frustrated with the poor quality figure skates available at the rink, I bought my own.
I had an intimate relationship with skating. I even took my skates with me to Japan when I went out there to work, despite the impact this would have on my luggage.
When I moved to London, I found it difficult to keep up the motivation. Skating cost twice as much as it did in Oxford, and I got out of practice. I took an uncharacteristically heavy fall, and limped off the rink. It would be 18 months before I would return.
Skating to me represents a way of reconnecting with myself. I truly feel like I am alive when I’m skating, connecting with the ice, reacting to it, almost at one with it. When I’m in full flow, the skates are not an odd piece of footwear, but an extension of my body and of my natural movement.
When there is nothing else to concentrate on but me and the ice, the rest of the world melts away. My entire focus is me, my skates, and the people around me. Split second decisions about whether to pass someone, which angle to stand at, whether to ‘slalom.’ When going flat out, you see colours, not people. You are painting with your body.
When I skate I’m in a world of heightened sensitivity, of heightened emotion and stretching every nerve and sinew of my body to achieve the last 1%. The adrenalin high is like nothing on earth. I feel happier and more comfortable with myself. It’s no coincidence that the happiest relationships I have had have been while I have been ice skating on a regular basis.
The last 18 months have been one of professional progression but personal turmoil. My family situation has led to my life radically changing, and I have struggled against self doubt and a fear that possibly my best days may be behind me.
It’s hard to reach your mid twenties and suddenly see a crowd of younger, hipper, better looking people snapping at your heels. Suddenly you don’t represent ‘potential’ but you are judged on outcomes, and you can find the world to be a harsh and unforgiving place in that regard.
It’s as hard to look at old emails and wonder where your youthful never say die attitude went.
Many young professionals I have spoken to struggle with the fear that they have arrived late to the party – that the best opportunities for career progression or getting a foothold on the housing ladder have passed them by.
And I was scared too. Shit scared. What was happening to me? For two hours out on the ice today, I found a part of myself that I thought was lost. A young, creative, ambitious version of me.
I had suddenly reconnected with one of the few things on the planet that I felt like I was born to do. It was like meeting an old friend who I had not seen for a number of years, only that friend was myself.
I can’t help but mourn the last 18 months, even though I don’t want to. How did I allow myself to be distracted from my passions for so long?
How much better could my life have been had I continued (not to mention what kind of physical shape I’d be in). How would my professional life have improved? Would I have made more progress on my startup?
I hope that this new me is back for good. I came off the rink and proceeded to write one of the best business emails I had in a long time. I rang my dad and told him how I felt. I felt capable of creative punditry on UX and mobile on Twitter.
Most importantly I felt that far from losing my edge (as James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem put it in the song of the same name), I felt like I was only just getting started. Dude, I’m 25. Follow your passions.
I’d love to get your thoughts on this – this is an unusually confessional piece for me – and if you’d like to share your passions in the comments below that would be so welcome.