Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Looking at one's career - part 1 of ?

In a continuation of my series on looking at career (started here), where I describe some of what influences me) I want to address the notion of improvement. Keep in mind these are my thoughts without explicit linkage to existing theories/content/... out there. I'll be more than happy to point out additional resources as I find them.

Continuous Improvement

First and foremost, I am a strong believer in the fact that constant improvement is essential, non-negotiable really, if one wants to achieve and at a minimum maintain (never mind increase) the means to function as a professional in modern society. This does not necessarily mean "working" all the time, taking courses like there's no tomorrow and throwing work-life balance out the window, but the deliberate pursuit of improvement in at least the following contexts:
  • Tasks - The specific actions one needs to take to fulfill their responsibilities to their employer. 
  • Job - The things that are relevant to one's present employer, be they "external" - everything related to how that employer interacts with its customers - or "internal" - how to function effectively as a member of the employer's organization.
  • Skills - Your specific abilities related to your field of expertise or your capabilities to be a functioning individual in modern society.
  • Career - The progression of roles within one or more organizations over a period of time.
  • Area - The broad knowledge field(s) in which one operates.
Ultimately, I think "taking care of one's career" is the constant, never-ending balancing of improvements in each of the areas above. Neglecting any one of them for the benefit of others will result in heartbreak:
  • if you ignore the Tasks, you can't actually *do* what you're supposed to do and may end up dismissed for not adding value.
  • if you ignore the Job, you may end up a sub-par member of the organization, either at risk of losing your job or stuck in the same place until obsolescence.
  • if you ignore Skills, whatever you know or know how to do may not be transferable to other scenarios, be they in your current organization or elsewhere.
  • if you ignore Career, your work history may be a series of roles with no distinguishing growth. It may be OK for some, but rarely the stuff people aspire to.
  • if you ignore your Area, it becomes difficult to identify and understand the impact of larger trends in your industry on what you do and on your plans moving forward.

What do I mean by pursuit of improvement? There's several alternatives, including but not limited to:
  • Formal training: academia, continuing education, corporate training, private courses, tutors, ...
  • Self-study: reading books, joining study groups/lists online, watching/participating online training (I *love* the Khan Academy as an example, or AcademicEarth.org), keeping abreast of developments, news, etc...
  • Practicing: volunteering (offline or online - Livemocha is a good example of online volunteering for language training), internships, hobbies, side businesses, etc...

The amount of time one dedicates to this will naturally fluctuate: from extra-hyper crazy days/weeks at work to dealing with family commitments or even one's own motivation peaks and troughs, there will be times where one can dedicate 'x' hours per week on a set schedule and there will be times when one is lucky to get 15-30 minutes without distractions.

Wrapping up, the key ideas I value are:
- keep improving
- balance it with the rest of life, but don't neglect it
- balance it between all the contexts I mentioned above
- balance it between the ways to improve I mentioned
- keep improving
- keep improving
- ...

Looking at one's career - part 0 of ?

In having a conversation with someone whom I deeply admire, the topic of career planning and progress came up. In trying to summarize my points, I realized that I was having problems explaining my positions, so the idea of putting things to "paper" came to mind.

This post is the prologue to the series of articles I plan to write to help me crystallize the concepts running around my mind. Yes, it can be thought of as narcissistic of me, but I've made my peace with what and how I write (cue in the scene from "Top Gun" where Maverick admits being arrogant... :-) )


I am an avid but not very methodical student. For years I've been digesting all sorts of interesting ideas through books, magazines, articles, audiobooks, mailing lists, webminars, courses, conversations, blog posts, tweets, ... but have only been moderately successful at storing that information in an efficient format. This is a constant work in progress - a common theme to my routine - but some key ideas stick around without the need for elaborate systems.

First and foremost, I am heavily influenced (though not limited by) the examples I had at home when growing up. My mother and my stepfather have had long and distinguished careers in academia, while my two younger brothers have followed on that example much more than I did (both have advanced degrees in their respective fields, while I focused on a career in the private sector). I grew up with mom and my stepdad dedicating a significant amount of time above and beyond "working hours" to studying, preparing lectures, coaching/mentoring others and taking visible satisfaction/enjoyment in doing so.

At some point - after the early career years where everything is a blur - I found myself interested in personal improvement on my own terms: I thought of academia as too stifling and of typical corporate training as too tactical. At the time I considered going for an MBA (still haven't ruled it out completely) but in one of those fortuitous turns of life I came across the "Personal MBA" (www.personalmba.com) initiative. It really deserves its own blog post - coming soon - but for now think of it as a collection of recommended readings on key areas typically found in most MBA programs, with a slight bias towards small-business entrepreneurship. It literally changed my life.

Over the past few years, I've read - in whole or in part - many of the books recommended there. Here are some of the key ideas I have taken as key influences in my thinking:

- From Jim Rohn (motivational speaker), there are several quotes, but two stuck with me:
     "Work hard on your job and you can make a living. Work hard on yourself and you can make a fortune..."
     "Don't wish it were easier; wish you were better. Don't wish for less problems; wish for more skills. Don't wish for less challenges; wish for more wisdom."

- Mastery, by George Leonard
     The basic notion of mastery being a never-ending journey of constant improvement.

- Now, Discover your Strengths, by Marcus Buckingham and Donald Clifton 
     That developing strengths rather than fixing weakness leads to much greater outcomes.

- Getting Things Done, by David Allen. 
     Providing a system for not only managing "to do"s, but the concept of thinking about things in multiple layers (50,000 foot-view, 20,000, 10,000, ...).

- Lead the Field, by Earl Nightingale
     Attitude! - You are responsible for how your life turns out, and your attitude shapes that life for better or worse.
Other influences not from the Personal MBA recommendations include:
- The Inner Game of Tennis by W. Timothy Galloway
     After proper deliberate practice, let go of trying to control things and trust your training.
- Outliers, by Malcom Gladwell.
     The incredible results one can achieve with a bit of luck and a lot of practice.

Yes, to many people, all these ideas are relatively simple and straightforward. Great ideas usually are, they just need the right context to make all the difference.

More on next posts...