The Surprising Reason Why Being Your Boss Is Hard Work

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Sunday, 8.41pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’ – Martin Luther King, Jr

I’m reading Here Comes Everybody: How change happens when people come together by Clay Shirky and looking at things from a new point of view.

As is often the case once you’re shown a new idea it seems obvious.

For example, the society that existed before the Internet is obviously different from the one that exists now.

Once upon a time it was hard to publish anything.

You needed money and machines and technology to print books, make films and reach people.

Now, it’s effortless and virtually costless for any of us to be publishers.

In such a world some things change and others remain resolutely the same.

Take fame, for example.

We think of famous people as a special breed – these sportspeople, actors and celebrities – who are in the public eye.

But what is it that makes them famous?

At one time you might have said it’s the media.

You’re famous when you’re on television or in the papers.

Shirky argues that fame is actually a matter of counting links.

In theory everyone can connect to everyone else on the Internet.

In practice we can only do so much each day.

We might know 10, 20, 200 people well.

We might be able to send a certain number of emails or tweets, or make calls.

Whether we’re famous or not, the number of connections we can make with someone else is limited by our own cognitive limits – what our brains can do without blowing up.

You can’t talk to 2,000 people a day – not real one-to-one conversations anyway.

So, two people can have only so many outgoing links – red arrows in the picture above.

But, any number of people can link to you – to your material or follow you on social media or send you emails.

You can’t stop a million people all sending you messages on every digital channel you have.

You also can’t respond to them. It’s out of your control to do it personally.

You will need help to even think about trying to do that.

Fame then, according to Shirky, happens when there is an imbalance in links – more coming in than you can possibly handle.

Not more in than out – the point is that we can all have the same number of links going out plus or minus a few because that has to do with our own cognitive limits.

It’s when we’re simply unable to deal with the links coming in.

That’s when you know you are famous.

Which gets us to your boss and why he or she is famous.

If your boss is the kind of person who likes to be informed then you’ll copy her into every email you send.

It’s just one email, after all.

But, if she’s working with 20 people and they all send her emails – just one at a time – they build up.

And she can’t answer them all, or has to work very hard trying to keep up.

And the load simply gets worse the more people you have.

The problem, once again, is that there are more inbound links than you can physically handle.

It’s the problem of being famous.

Everyone knows you as the boss and tries to keep you informed and you’re deluged with information as a result.

So here’s the funny thing about fame that I get from Shirky’s observations.

If you think that by becoming famous you’ll have deeper and more meaningful relationships with more people – you won’t.

As you climb your career ladder and become more well known you’ll find that you simply can’t know and talk to everyone.

Not because you don’t want to but because you’ll start to reach the human limits of what you can do.

So where does that leave us?

With just the human realisation that you can have a certain number of meaningful relationships and if you’ve got more inbound ones than that – well, you’re famous and just can’t do anything about it.

What’s left is your work.

So make sure you enjoy that.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

What Do You Need To Do To Get Extreme Success?

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Saturday, 9.44pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Charlie Munger, the Vice-Chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, is well known for his views on the importance of mental models – concept that you can use to explain and understand why things happen the way they do.

Take extreme success, for example.

What is it that makes Walmart or Google so successful? And are these principles that can be used for smaller firms or even for ourselves as individuals?

Munger says extreme success is likely to happen when key factors combine in certain ways.

A. One or two factors – taken to extremes

When you think Walmart, you probably think cost. When you think Google, you think search.

These companies have taken a leadership position in a particular space – in their industry and in our minds.

If you want a prestige car, you’re going to think BMW and Mercedes first. Then there are the others.

Now, perhaps one doesn’t think of extreme success in the context of a local convenience store, but the factor that keeps them going is that they’re open late. Later than most others anyway.

So they thrive in their small niche, extremely successful in their own way.

B. Combining factors to get exponential results – the lollapalooza effect

This is the idea that 1 + 1 + 1 = 30, not 3.

Toyota have an ad out at the moment, showing a Hilux behind a glass panel and with the words in case of apocalypse, break glass.

You could argue that a Hilux gives you the ability to go anywhere and survive, has functionality that is world-class but is still something you can fix on the side of the road and is priced like a Toyota and not a Hummer.

It’s like the old joke comparing Land Rovers and Land Cruisers. If you want to go into the Australian outback, take a Land Rover. If you want to come back, take a Land Cruiser.

Scott Adams says that when he combined average skills at writing, drawing and knowledge of engineering the resulting comic, Dilbert, struck a chord with millions and took off.

It’s the combination that did it, not just any one factor.

C. Great performance over a number of factors

So here you need to look at organisations that get a lot of things right – and that’s not easy.

The more things you have to do, the more things that can go wrong.

Take Amazon, for example. It’s a company that does a ridiculous number of things – from providing a platform where you can buy almost anything to the support structures around your purchase, like recommendations and next day delivery.

Or take one of those survival watches. If you get one of them, you need to be confident that it will survive a plunge into freezing water, keep a signal going that can be picked up by satellite and looks good enough so you can wear it to an expensive fundraiser.

It’s hard to do a lot of things right. When you do, you’re going to get far.

D. Ride a wave

The final factor is that you’re lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time. Bill Gates was in the right place when IBM kickstarted the personal computer industry. Google came out with search algorithms just as the web reached the point where Yahoo’s listings couldn’t keep pace with the growth in pages.

The waves might be large, macroeconomic ones like the transition to renewable generation or the invention of the shipping container.

Or they might be small ones, like coming out with a diet that catches the eye of an influencer and spreads.

The thing with waves is that it’s hard to predict when they will turn up. You just need to get in position and, if you’re lucky, one will come along and lift you up.

So, do these apply to small businesses and individuals?

Well… as a model, perhaps we can use them and see. As George Box wrote all models are wrong, some are useful.

For example, can you be a leader in a particular factor? Cost, for example. While all your competitors do things manually, can you automate stuff so that you can be cheaper, but offer much more?

Can you put things together so that they have an exponential effect. For example, it’s incredibly hard to recruit people who can read, write and do arithmetic (to a high standard!). If you can… then there are many consulting jobs waiting for you with high salaries.

Are you a superb generalist – someone who can walk into an industry and fix everything from sales to operations to R&D. If so, perhaps that’s your edge.

And finally – have you qualified in a field whose time has come? Neuroscience, perhaps? Or big data?

What’s perhaps clear is that if you want to succeed, it’s not just about working hard.

You also need to know why you have an edge.

And then work on the things that sharpen your edge.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

Why Do Some People Have All The Power?

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Tuesday, 6.54pm

Sheffield, U.K.

It’s easy to assume the world is the way it is and that’s how it’s going to stay.

It’s hard to imagine an alternative to the status quo. Can you imagine Google and Facebook not being as big and powerful as they are now? Doing a search on any other engine?

Logically – it’s possible, even likely. Societies change, regimes fall and companies disappear. All the time.

But, when you’re in the middle of a situation, whether personal, business or political, it’s hard to see where the change is going to come from.

Which is where power theory may help.

This paper by Oliver E. Williamson says that you need to have three things to grab power in an organisation:

  1. You need to control critical resources.
  2. You need to have early access to information.
  3. You need to be strategically positioned to deal with uncertainty.

Technically – he argues that the most critical part of the organisation will get these assigned to them. So, for example, if marketing is the bit of the organisation that makes the most difference, then it will be given these three things to do.

He also says that power theory is not great at explaining things – it’s a bit of a pied piper – because if you have control, why would you give it up? Why wouldn’t you stop power being taken away from you?

Now… I’m not sure I agree with his dismissal of the concept, because it seems to be useful in explaining both how things are and how they might change. Bear with me.

Let’s say you run a big car company in the US in fifties and sixties. The rest of the world has been devastated by war but the mainland US is unaffected and starts to churn out stuff for the rest of the world, supported by natural resources, a big population and abundant industrial expertise.

You’re in control. You make plenty of money. People buy your cars all around the world. Gas is cheap, so your cars are big and comfortable. You’ve got plenty of political support because of all the people you employ and the politicians you support.

You’ve also got all the statisticians and data analysts and government reports you need to see about the industry. Plenty of information on sales and resources and competitors. Nothing really gets past you.

You have a perfect power triangle – you’re in the strongest shape of your life – and it looks like nothing can ever challenge your dominance.

Until it does.

The Japanese car producers, who you’ve dismissed as makers of small, cheap, tinny cars that the American public will never buy, start to make better cars.

More importantly, however, there is a oil crisis. The Middle East creates a cartel and sends prices sky high. And suddenly all your big cars are hugely expensive to run, you don’t know how to make small economical cars and the Japanese have an opening – and people start to try their cars and like them.

Your problem is that you weren’t strategically positioned to deal with this kind of uncertainty.

And that’s because it’s really hard to predict such a dramatic shift in circumstances, especially when things are going so well.

Let’s take another example.

Microsoft was unchallenged in the PC operating system world. It ran most machines. The rest hardly made an impact.

The thing that they weren’t strategically positioned for was the Internet – and that let Google in.

What this shows us is that power is temporary – it’s a function of control, information and positioning.

At a point in time.

There’s no point in controlling critical resources if they become irrelevant. Just ask the coal industry as it wilts in the face of renewables.

There’s no point in having early access to information, for example through leaks from the government, when the Internet doesn’t give a hoot what politicians think and lets anyone talk to anyone else in the world.

And there’s no point being positioned behind a big wall if there’s a big tunnel forming right under it.

However fixed something seems to be, however powerful the current people in charge appear to be, there’s another power structure forming behind them, invisible to them – but getting ready to replace them.

Let’s hope it’s a better one.

Cheers,

Karthik

What Would You Do If You Got Fired Tomorrow?

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Wednesday, 9.59pm

Sheffield, U.K.

I had a chat with a friend of mine a few days back.

He’s the boss, and had to make some difficult decisions about letting some people go.

It was a big decision – he felt the responsibility. But it had to be done for the sake of the business. The business came first.

When you get the inside view of the process at the top of a business, you realise a few things about life.

First, no one is indispensable. No one is irreplaceable.

Felix Dennis, in his book How To Get Rich, says overhead walks on two legs.

He’s also blunt about the value of talent to an employer like him. Your talent and my talent.

Identify talent early, he says. Then you can underpay it for a short time, if the work is challenging enough. Then you pay the market rate. Finally, you’re paying it based on past reputation alone – at which time you must part company with it.

There’s a lesson there. The more expensive you are, the more at risk you are.

So why is it, when you type the headline of this post into Google, most of what you get is stuff on how to manage your feelings and the law about human resources?

Both those are all very well, but if you’re a well-paid employee, you should really have a backup plan in place.

You may never get fired – but you have insurance for your life, for your house. You have a disaster recovery plan at work. Why wouldn’t you have a disaster recovery plan for your job?

So, here are some thoughts about the most important things you need to have in place as part of that plan.

1. Know Your Runway

Robert Kiyosaki defines wealth as the number of days you can survive if you lose your job tomorrow.

Real wealth is not what you have in the bank, it’s not just a money number.

It’s how long you can live on that number.

Take a simple example.

Let’s say you have $100,000 in the bank.

You have a great job. The house, the car, the golf membership, elegant living and holidays cost you $10,000 a month. The same amount that the job pays you.

You’d last 10 months if the job stopped paying you.

That’s your runway.

The longer your runway, the more time you have to get yourself sorted again.

So the first piece of your your plan is to work out what you can slash your monthly costs to if you absolutely had to.

Then, look at your bank account and work out how many months you can go without pay.

If that number is more than 12 – you have a year that you could survive with nothing coming in – you’re doing well.

If it’s less – especially if it’s a lot less – you need to start building your runway now. The time to build it is when you don’t need it.

2. Know Your Value

There’s a saying – price is what you pay, value is what you get.

Value is your secret weapon. It’s the thing you offer that no one else does. It’s why someone should give you money and not someone else.

And in today’s world, there are an unlimited number of ways to become more valuable. Simply becoming good at one thing will make you more valuable.

Choosing that one thing is an important thing for you to do.

All too often, we let that thing be decided by others. You do what you’re told to do at work. You wait for workplace training. You progress up a chosen path.

That won’t make you rich, and it won’t make you safe.

What will make you safe is the stuff you do on your own, your homework, the stuff that you build after hours.

How you use non-billable time is how you increase your value.

Whether it’s a skill like coding or carpentry or a service like sales or social media management – you need to figure out the value you bring.

Because that’s what people will get out their wallets for.

3. Have A Product

But, people have to be able to give you money in exchange for something. In exchange for a product.

Think of everything you do as a product.

A product has certain characteristics:

  1. It is well defined.
  2. It has a price.
  3. It gives the customer a benefit.

A service is no different from a product in this sense. A plumber fixes your plumbing. A copywriter writes your webpages. A programmer creates an application.

What you want to do is avoid the fuzzy world of “jobs” that need to be done. Unless you turn your superb administration skills into a product like being a personal assistant.

The reason for you to treat yourself as a provider of products is that you take control. Instead of being someone that is told what to do by your employer, you think of yourself as someone that provides benefits to an employer.

Any employer willing to pay your price.

Which leads us to the last point.

4. Be Ready To Hustle

You can’t avoid being successful if you are prepared to tell your story to four or five people every day.

If you have something of value to offer, wrapped in a product with a price, then all you need is to find customers.

And the way you do that is by getting off the couch and going to look for them.

It’s like the dad that told his kid there was a million dollars under his shoe.

The kid kept looking under his shoe, until he realised what that meant.

Use up some shoe leather going to find those customers. It’s easier now with LinkedIn and email and the Internet.

It should take you less than a day to find 100 people that might benefit from what you have to offer.

It should take less than a month to contact them all.

As long as you have more than a month of runway – you’re bound to succeed.

At which point, the whole memory of being fired will be a distant one. And the chances are that you will look on the whole episode with gratitude because it set you on this new, better path.

There’s Only One Thing You Need To Do

Have your plan. And be ready to ACT.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

5 Vital Skills For a Self-Managed Freelance World of Work

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Many people in charge of companies now still have a mindset of 9-5 factory style work where people are structured in a hierarchy and there is a chain of command.

You’re slotted into your role in the organisation like pegs in a giant pegboard.

But, work is changing. Roles aren’t fixed any more. Not in the sense that you can do one job your entire life and retire with a pension.

As people live older, they don’t particularly want to stop working. And younger folk are finding it hard to move up a career ladder based on roles and seniority when the older ones insist on staying on the rungs.

Which is why Morningstar is interesting.

Morningstar does things with tomatoes. They care about tomatoes. On their website you can learn about the history of tomatoes, watch a day in the life of a tomato and check out prices for tomato products from hot paste to diced tomatoes in juice.

That’s not the interesting bit.

The interesting bit is that they have no managers. The only role in the company is held by Chris Rufer, the President, because it needs to for legal reasons. And he’s got that because he started it.

Instead, they have a workforce of around 400 workers that manage themselves by creating a network of agreements with each other. A peer-to-peer management system, if you like.

You might think this approach is nonsense. Surely the company would collapse without a cadre of trained managers, all being paid four times what a worker earns, watching the workers work?

Somehow it doesn’t. A mini-market emerges instead, and out of the transactions and agreements made between the workers, a low margin business sustains and grows over time.

This self-management system has spawned its own training centre – The Morningstar Self-Management Institute – and Doug Kirkpatrick sets out five skills that you need to have to do this well.

Now, even if you don’t work for Morningstar but work in a regular company or as a freelancer, these skills are worth thinking about.

1. Always take the initiative

Talk is easy. It’s when you start doing something – taking the first step – that magic happens.

Thinking and strategy and plans are all important and need doing. But you have to get started – whatever that means for you.

For example, as a freelancer with no clients, you have to take the initiative and reach out to prospects. If you have prospects, you have to reach out to them with pitches and suggestions. If you have clients, you have to go back to them with new ideas and opportunities.

Stop talking and start doing.

2. Get comfortable with fuzziness and ambiguity

A world where you have a safe, well-paid job where you can’t be fired is unlikely. And, if you do have that, it’s probably pretty boring.

Safety usually is.

Really exciting things happen in places where people wear t-shirts saying “Safety third”.

Fuzzy and uncertain spaces are where you can find and add value. That’s the edge of new technology, new capability or wasted effort that you can sort out.

If you go where other people don’t – you’ll find projects and opportunities and money.

3. Learn how to be aware of yourself and your progress

If you want to get somewhere, you have to constantly check yourself, check whether you’re moving in the right direction.

Time goes by quickly. Before you know it your time is up and you’re behind where you wanted to be at this point.

If you have a mission – a goal – you’ve got to be aware of it every single day and move towards it. You’re not going to make it in one big leap. But a step every day will make it impossible for you not to reach it.

4. Always try to contribute

Don’t wait for stuff to come to you. Don’t hold back protecting ideas and thoughts and plans because you think they are really clever.

If you can help someone else do it.

It’s good practice. You can get whatever you want if you help enough other people get what they want.

Today, the more you share, the more people can see what you do and are willing to trust you.

It’s one thing saying you can do something – another showing your work.

If you contribute, if you’re visible – you’ll make yourself discoverable – and that is the key to getting more work and growing a business.

5. Select for low power distance

You’re going to have a choice of who to work with. There’s an entire world of people out there looking for your exact skills.

Some of them are not nice.

In the series Scrubs, the actors talk about a no asshole rule. It doesn’t matter how good you are, if you’re an asshole you’re not joining the team.

This is a good rule to use when working for someone.

It’s good practice to fire difficult customers and spend all the time you save being extra-helpful to the nice ones.

The ones who don’t lord themselves over you.

Your ideal customer is one that doesn’t see themselves as your boss but as a colleague – someone who can work with you to create something that benefits both of you.

Someone who just wants to take from you isn’t worth working with.

In summary

Whether you’re just starting a new career or moving out of an old one into a new freelance way of working, you’re going to have to pick up new skills.

One of the most important is how to move from doing what you’re told to agreeing what needs to be done with people willing to pay you.

Or better yet, offering value that people are happy to buy from you.

And all that starts with a mindset shift.

Followed by massive action.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

How To Think Big

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Wednesday, 7.33pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Let’s look at the power of thinking today.

Descartes said, “I think, therefore I am.”

You hold a model of reality in your mind. Your brain lives in a dark, windowless cave. Everything you see and sense is re-created in your head.

Okay… so what?

The point is that your head is a place where you hold models. Models of how things are, how people treat you, how the politics of your office work and how your relationships develop.

And, if it’s just a model, you can change things by deciding what to put in the model – and make a real impact on your life.

Let’s take a simple example. You have a task to do – any task. There will be three things you need to figure out:

  1. Your attitude to the task
  2. What you need to do
  3. How you’re going to get it done

These three things can be pushed together to form a model. How will you play with the model if you want to do well – if you want to become big? How will this Think Big model work?

1. When in doubt, be confident

Imagine you’re at work in a team meeting. The boss called it because a problem has come up with a customer’s account – your contractor missed completing one of the items on a snag list.

How will the boss view you as you sit with the others in the room?

Are you a problem solver – the one that can be trusted to take this problem and manage what needs to be done until the customer is happy?

Or are you the person that finds all the problems – the detail oriented person that can find all the things that could go wrong?

Here’s what you shouldn’t be – the person with all the problems and no solutions.

That person is a drag. They might be right – but they suck all the air out of a room and leave everyone feeling despondent.

And what they’re not right about is that there is no way out.

There is always a way out.

You need to be confident that you’ll find a way.

It’s really just a simple strategy. If you’re confident, you’ll get a chance. If you’re not, you’ll get listened to, and then put on a team led by the confident person.

2. Write down what you are going to do

Your confidence comes because you have a plan.

Perhaps, taking one step back, you need a plan to be confident in the first place.

Your mind is going to follow the instructions you give it. Not always. Your emotions get in the way often. But, a good starting point is to decide what you’re going to do and write it out, step by step.

Then, follow the instructions. Run them like you would a computer program.

For example, if you want to be more confident the next time you’re in a meeting, try this:

  1. Walk in and take a chair facing the door, ideally one where you can watch the most important person in the room.
  2. Decide you’re not going to put any pressure on yourself to participate or speak up. It’s okay to be quiet and listen.
  3. When you make a point, build on someone else’s first. Follow a strong argument with reasons why it will work.
  4. When you’re asked whether you can make something happen, say yes.

Treat this sequence of instructions like a program. Programs are never completely right, they always have bugs – but its one you can run and see what happens.

If you do all the things on the list – you will have achieved the following:

  • You’ll feel more powerful just being in a powerful position in the room
  • By watching the most important person you’ll see early what will fly and what will be shot down
  • By listening carefully, you’ll see the bigger picture rather than panicking about what you’re going to say
  • By building on someone else’s point, you’ll make friends
  • By saying yes, you’ll be seen as someone willing to bat for your team

3. Fix the bugs. Remove, or avoid obstacles in your way

There will always be people who believe what you want to do can’t be done. Problems that crop up. Events that change things.

If you let any of these things stop you, the only person that loses out is you.

You have no choice. You need to get rid of these obstacles.

If you can’t get them out of your life, then you need to get around them somehow.

And the way you do this is with rules – back to the program again.

Tweak the program. Change a routine. Write a new line.

Run it again, see what happens. Make a change. Repeat the process.

You are what you think you are

At the end of the day, reality doesn’t control you.

You create your reality in your mind.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

How afraid are you that you will leave no trace?

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Tuesday, 10.06pm

Sheffield

We’re trusting our memories to others in a way that has never been done before.

We used to live in a world where we had stuff – diaries, papers, photographs. These objects held memories for us.

Now, we live and record memories using our devices – and those devices are merely a way to see what actually lives somewhere else – in vast data centres run by huge corporations.

This seems like a good thing.

We’ve replaced cluttered desks and bulging filing cabinets with clean, neat online storage.

Or have we?

Have we really just shoved all that clutter into a bottomless filing cabinet.

Most of us now probably have 10 years or more of emails, thousands of documents and tens of thousands of photographs.

We don’t need to throw anything away – there is no need to sort, sift, shred or save anything – it’s all just there – always.

And that creates its own problem.

When there too much of something, it’s accompanied by a lack of something else.

Too much digital clutter is accompanies by a lack of time to do anything with it.

I have a small box of thing that belonged to my grandfather. An Army service record. A name badge. A telephone book with the numbers of people he knew. A school report.

Most families have a few things that date from three or four generations ago. A photograph of the family on holiday. A portrait of the children. A wedding album.

Now – we have every second of our lives captured digitally.

If we don’t keep that information in a form that our children’s children can access, it will simply be lost.

And that’s the advantage of paper – printed photos, written documents.

But, we don’t need to think generations ahead.

Recently, I needed to find a reference number for a form. That number had been created ten years ago. I had no digital trace.

I had a paper record though. It took some time to find, but it was there and I could do something with it.

On the other hand, stuff that I stored digitally is gone. I created it, put it on a drive and it may or may not exist somewhere.

I wonder if we’ll wake up in ten years and find big chunks of our memories missing. Perhaps a company that holds them goes bust. Perhaps hard drives fail. Perhaps we just forget where we put stuff.

There’s a brilliant ad showing how all the things that used to be on a desk disappear and are incorporated into a phone – the calendar, the phone, the notebook – everything.

It’s clear that this is fabulous – the desk is completely clear. All you need is a computer.

But… imagine that desk without the computer…

What is left?

And is that all you really want to leave?

What is the secret to getting started

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Saturday 12.23am

Sheffield

We’re all somewhere right now – somewhere that we are because of all the decisions we made on the way.

Every choice, every act has led to one inevitable place. Looking back, we can see how we got here with total clarity.

If we’re honest with ourselves, that is.

We carry the impact of those choices with us. Possessions weight us down, if we have any. If we don’t, envy weights us down even more.

Or perhaps it doesn’t. Perhaps we are content with what is.

Do you have children? Imagine that you’re trying to talk to your rebellious teenager about career choices.

The kid wants to be a musician. You’d rather she were a dermatologist. The chances of becoming a successful musician, in your eyes, might be low and is accompanied by a variety of exciting risks.

Dermatology, on the other hand, is a safe career and she’ll have patients for life – as treating skin problems is hardly a dangerous career, and skin issues rarely clear up entirely.

How would you approach making the decision? Would you stand your ground and insist that you know more about her career? Or give her the chance to make her own choices?

Let’s say you didn’t. She became a dermatologist. Now, 20 years later, she’s successful, with patients. And she’s miserable.

What should she do?

She’s invested years of her life in this career. It’s given her safety and security, just as you predicted. Perhaps she has a mortgage, a family, car payments. All the trappings of success.

Maybe she feels trapped. The things she owns have ended up owning her. What can she do? And when?

The when question is easier to answer – and it’s a trite response – a joke almost.

When’s the best time to start something? 10 years ago. When’s the second best time? Now.

Actually, the what question is not that hard to answer either.

What should she do?

Anything.

Anything that gets her moving in the direction of what she once wanted. Anything at all.

There’s a but.

But, it needs to be something she does every day from now on – perhaps for the rest of her life.

Perhaps she practices singing or her instrument five minutes a day. Or a hour a day. Every day.

When she commits, life will change. Not quickly. As the saying goes, people overestimate what they can achieve in a year, and underestimate what they can do in ten years.

She needs to stop looking for reasons why she can’t do what she wanted. And ask questions like how can she do what she wants.

What does she need to do to take the first step?

Then start. Take the step.

How simple rules can help us become better at everything

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Complex situations need equally complex solutions. Or do they?

This is the question explored in Simple Rules, a book by Donald Sull and Kathleen Eisenhardt.

Let’s be honest – how many times do we make something look really complicated so that we can come across as knowing more than everyone else or justify the fee we are charging.

But really, in many many areas, just using simple rules will give better results than complex ones.

So, what are simple rules and how can they help us?

Sull and Eisenhardt split simple rules into those that help us become more effective and those that help us become more effective.

Becoming Effective

Becoming more effective is squeezing more out of the time we have and that means saying yes to some things and no to others.

We can do these in three ways.

Boundary rules

First there are boundary rules. These are binary decisions of the yes/no variety.

What should we do and what shouldn’t we?

For example, when revising for exams for my first degree, I had two very simple rules.

I never worked after 12 in the afternoon and on weekends.

Working from 9 – 12 for four weeks before the exams was more than enough time to revise and prepare for them.

Prioritisation rules

The next kind of decisions revolve around what to do first.

The classic example of this is how medics triage patients during an accident.

Everyone is tagged based on the severity of their condition and how urgent it is that they are seen.

I remember being in an aircraft accident simulation as one of the volunteers to train the response teams where we were all labelled with the injuries we had supposedly sustained.

I had a broken foot and so was transported slowly by ambulance while enviously thinking of the helicopter ride being taken by the person with far more serious injuries.

Prioritisation can be a double edged sword, however, leading to unnecessary escalation and messing about unless the rules are clear and applied consistently.

Stopping rules

The last kind of effectiveness rule has to do with when to stop.

Enough needs to be enough. Cultures that have a rule that people should stop eating just before they are full have much lower obesity levels than others that stop eating when they are full.

Perfectionists sometimes don’t know when to stop. In most cases, it’s good to stop early – and that leaves us with the capacity to go longer on the things that matter.

Becoming Efficient

Where effective is about doing the right things, being efficient is about doing things right – and once again there are three types of rules.

How-to rules

How-to rules set out a pathway, a series of steps to follow.

The best example of this is the idea of mise-en-place – laying out everything that is needed and following an efficient sequence of operations to cook.

One thing I learned here was to put the pan on the fire before starting to get ingredients out. By the time I had everything, the pan was hot and I could get on with cooking.

Coordination rules

Coordination rules are about playing nicely with others – working as a team.

A nice example is when to use the words you and we.

When we talk to someone else and need to talk about a negative situation, say the person did something wrong, how should we phrase the sentence?

Is it You made a mistake or We made a mistake.

Using you will immediately result in the listener getting defensive and upset. With we, there is a recognition of collective ownership and a more likely move towards thinking of ways to stop the problem happening again.

Timing rules

The last set of rules are about timing – when to do things.

For example, many productive people believe that we should the things that are most important to us first thing in the morning.

When I started writing this blog, I did just that – the first thing I did every day was to write. And having that rule made it much easier to do the work needed

Many activities have cadences – a sequence that needs to be followed to get results. Getting the timing right on these is crucial.

Summary

Simple Rules is an easy-to-read book that sets out a clear map of what simple rules look like and how to come up with them.

So here is a simple rule – Read the book.

What Groucho Marx teaches us about win-win strategies

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Groucho Marx, an American comedian, once wrote when resigning from a club that he didn’t want to belong to any club that would have him as a member.

Which, when we think about it, is often the way that we approach many situations.

Take selling or job hunting.

Many of us believe that if we make enough calls or apply to enough positions we’ll get somewhere – it’s a numbers game and we just need to make the numbers.

So we grind it out, spending day after day, and wondering why we aren’t getting anywhere fast.

That’s not a strategy – it’s a treadmill.

Terry Speed, Professor Emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley writing in the American Statistical Association membership magazine, suggests that a job hunter should instead make two lists.

  1. Where would I immediately accept a job offer?
  2. Which employers would be delighted to employ me?

It’s important that answers to both questions are unconditional – we accept and they offer without bargaining.

If we’re thinking like Groucho Marx, there is no win-win.

We want to work at places that may not want us. And we’re hesitant to consider the places that do.

According to Professor Speed, we’re in good shape and well calibrated if there is an overlap between the lists.

It’s worth spending the time to work out who really wants to – or will want to work with us because we can both benefit from collaborating.

That really means seeing if we’re aligned. No amount of external management or manipulation can overcome poor alignment of goals and expectations.

Conversely – sharing goals and aligning expectations means that we can spend less time on control and more time on execution.

Ideally then, we’d join clubs that we really wanted to be part of, and which would be delighted to have us as members.

But how do we know when this is the case – how do we know when we’re aligned?

There’s no easy answer to that question. It’s not something that can be assessed with a simple checklist.

We may just have to learn to look harder at what is in front of us until we can see.