Three Words That Will Transform Your Career

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Every time you encounter another person, think: help this person. It's not altruistic. Nothing else can so quickly supercharge your career and improve the quality of your life.

When you walk into Starbucks for a coffee, think help this person about the barista who serves you. Instead of being frustrated that he isn't moving fast enough, see if you can make him smile. Better yet, tell him to keep the change.

When the phone rings on a busy day, don't get frustrated by the interruption. Think help this person while you answer the phone. Doing so will change your demeanor, your thought process, and the entire interaction.

If you have a subordinate who isn't pulling her weight, instead of criticizing her, every time you see her think help this person. This doesn't mean let her slide, or ignore her shortcomings. It means help her either improve her skills or find a position better suited to her strengths. But don't just brush her aside; really help her.

But wait a minute – I know what some of you are thinking. What about the people who take credit for other people's work? What about the rich and powerful who have gotten that way by crushing others? Doesn't their success prove me wrong?

Not at all. Sure, there are some people who take the exact opposite strategy. But it takes real skill and focus to succeed by being evil, and most of us just don't have the fortitude to pull it off. For those of us with a soul and a heart, the only real choice is to succeed by helping others.

By first thinking help this person, you will change the ways that others perceive you. There is no faster or more effective way to change your interactions and relationships. You will be viewed as a positive, constructive, helpful and dependable person. People will think you are more perceptive, attentive and understanding.

That's why this way of thinking is not altruistic; it is selfish, in the best sense of the word. The single best way to help yourself is to always be looking for ways to help other people. Sure, you'll be making the world a better place, and in the course of your life you will help many thousands of people. But don't do it because you ought to, or because it's the "right" thing to do.

Think help this person because you're selfish and proud of it.

The Top 20 Lessons I've Learned in My Career

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1.) Careers do not come with instructions. There are no "hard and fast" rules, no simple formulas for success. This is because you will work for - and with - other human beings, and people are complex and confusing creatures.

2.) Your job is to work well with other people. Yes, they may be confusing, but figuring out how to interact with people is your #1 one career challenge. It's tempting to think your job is to be an accountant or a brand manager, but it's not. 

3.) Develop a skill that other people value enough to pay for it. If you lack such a skill, do nothing else until you master one.

4.) Don't depend on one skill. Once you have a valuable skill, people will want you to use it again and again and again. If you keep doing this, you will eventually get bored and you will never increase your value in the marketplace. So after you master one skill, learn another skill on the side, until people are willing to pay you more to use that one.

5.) There are other forms of payment besides money. You can also work for satisfaction, pride, ego, fame, mastery, enjoyment and intellectual challenge.

6.) Don't undermine your own value. If you love your job so much you would gladly do it for free, it is best to not mention this to your boss.

7.) Work two jobs. Your first job is to help other people. Your second is your actual job. The better you are at #1, the easier #2 becomes.

8.) Without confidence, most of your competence will be wasted. Do whatever it takes to build self-confidence, even if it means confronting your worst fears.

9.) Never lose perspective. Your worst fears are nothing compared to what some people face each day just to find clean drinking water and enough food. Toughen up.

10.) Without competence, self-confidence is a self-delusion. Don't stop working until you deliver actual results.

11.) Confidence + competence = career success. This is the killer combination, the closest thing to a sure-fire ticket to everything you ever wanted.

12.) Failure is temporary, if you never give up.

13.) 13 is a lucky number. If you insist on believing in luck, believe in good luck.

14.) Retreat, then charge again. "Giving up" for a weekend or a week can be a good way to realize you're not ready to give up.

15.) Be prepared for your moment of truth. There's no way to schedule (in advance) your big break. Wake up every morning with the understanding that lightning could strike, in a good way.

16.) Pay attention. The more often you are "present," the higher your chances of spotting opportunities and minimizing risk.

17.) Dismiss trivia. 90% of the stuff that drives you crazy does not matter at all.

18.) You can change your reality. Nearly everyone feels stuck in the middle, even the people at the top. You're not stuck because you're in the middle; you're stuck because you're waiting for someone else to initiate change. Don't wait; do it yourself.

19.) Be grateful. Gratitude is a far more effective strategy than criticism.

20.) Be clear and truthful. The clearer you are at saying what you want, the more likely you are to get it.


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Why I Need People More Than A Clean Desk

I once worked for a company that was designed around six reports. By using these six reports, the owner of the firm could manage his $300 million business, and avoid most unpleasant surprises.

One year, my division's goal was to generate revenues of $100 million. We generated $100,010,000. To come that close to the owner's goal, we had to push two weeks of customer shipments into January. Yes, we deliberately slowed shipments so that the owner could have a company whose sales he could predict with great precision.

I left this firm after three years, because I did not enjoy a job in which my main task was to manage my desk well.

To please that sort of an owner, managers had to:

a.) Spend 97% of their workday in the office.

b.) Be incredibly organized, and maintain a fastidious filing system.

c.) Be tough as nails with suppliers and employees.

d.) Do everything the owner said, even when he was insulting and rude.

Perhaps you've worked for such a boss? One who values results more than people, who abhors chance and wants to reduce everything down to proven formulas?

Truth be told, this approach can work. It's not dissimilar to the way assembly lines work.

I just don't like it. Life is too short to reduce it to numbers, tickler files, and an empty Out box.

I'd much rather work in a culture in which people matter, and talent is something to be cultivated rather than rented. Growing by 12% a year, 20 years in a row is not my aspiration. Growing to my full potential - and helping others do the same - is so much more important.

For a time, my perception was that quitting that job was the dumbest thing I ever did. My entrepreneurial venture that followed was an up-and-down battle that never paid off financially... or even personally. But now it's clear that there was no other alternative. You have to know who you are, and I need human relationships more than a clean desk.

A few years ago, I solved the Messy Desk Problem by abandoning my desk entirely. At first, it served as a lovely place to store outdated digital devices, pretty rocks, and interesting toys. Then I just threw it out.

I now work out of the Eames Chair you see here. It has the advantage of lacking a flat surface on which to store stuff, which means I can't clutter it with, well, anything.

By the way, that's Hadley above, one of three 70-pound dogs I own. She's what my son calls an Aussieman, which is his made-up name for her dubious heritage as an Australian Shepherd/Doberman mix. She doesn't use a desk either.

When I shifted to my no-desk strategy, I also shifted to an all-digital filing system. All my articles, drafts, research, presentations, and speeches are in a neat (yes, neat) system that lets me find things quickly and easily. The best thing about this system is that iced tea glasses, lunch plates, review copies of other people's books, my extra jacket, and old newspapers don't fit into it.

In other words, I may be a bit messy on the outside, but inside I'm pretty focused.

This is the perfect balance for me, and perhaps for you, too.

In the real world, I can't control what people leave in my office (a lot). I can't always muster the energy to decide whether I might, possibly, maybe need a paper copy of the last 48 documents I signed.

In the digital world, my filing system expands endlessly but stays organized. "Clients" always contains one folder for each of my clients, and all their articles are in this folder. I won't bore you by going on and on, but it is EASY to stay organized in the digital world. For one thing, loose dog hair - which is everywhere in my real world - is nowhere to be seen in my digital space.

As a person with many different interests and modes, I thrive on this sort of distinction. My physical space needs to be relaxed and informal. But I can't tolerate imprecision when it comes to refining my work, serving clients, or simply organizing the ideas that matter most to me.

By the way, for those of you who think, "I could never just use a chair," think again. It changes the whole character of an office. People react differently when they enter. Your space becomes a social setting. Plus, instead of slouching at a desk, you can sit with your back supported.

(Personal plea: if Eames Chairs are bad for your back, or if they do not provide proper support, please do NOT tell me. I am very happy with the status quo.)


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The Incredible Power of Not Taking Credit

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Nothing limits your ability to achieve great things more than your desire to take credit for what you have achieved. This paradox is at the center of most problems that companies face.

It boggles my mind, for example, when some leaders take credit for the success of their organization. I think: you are already CEO, you already make $20 million, so why can't you empower the people who work for you instead of further inflating your own ego?

At many firms, employees spend more time worrying about who-is-going-to-get-the-credit than they do about the actual results. This is because compensation and promotion revolves around getting the credit, and also because if you don't get enough credit, then you might actually get fired.

But the fact is that you can accomplish much more, if you don't worry about taking the credit.

Skilled consultants know this; they gently nudge clients in one direction or another, making dozens - if not hundreds - of course corrections. When a job is well managed, clients think all the best ideas were theirs.

A few years back, I engaged in an extended experiment on this front. I have to keep the details fuzzy - because the participants were not aware of my strategy - but over the course of six months my goal was to maximize the impact of my actions while minimizing the perception of my role. In other words, I got a lot of stuff done without anyone realizing my orchestrations.

What amazed me was how easy it was to effect change once my goal was to NOT get credit for the resulting changes. Nudging someone in a certain direction is easy if your only objective is to nudge them slightly. You can share facts, ask innocent questions, and simply react most enthusiastically to the statements they make that support the change you favor.

Here's the cold, hard reality: the tough part about changing the world is getting credit. Just bringing about change is not that hard.

Here are a few places to start:

Set fires under people. Get them excited about their job, a new project, or simply a plan for the future. Again, bear in mind that you are not promoting your plan, but rather an idea that seems disconnected from you. There will be no obvious upside for you, and because of this your credibility will be greater.

Demonstrate by doing. Don't be a do-nothing leader; be a colleague who acts instead of just talks. Through your actions, allow others to see what success looks like.

Take joy in the success of others. Redefine success so that it does not entail a slap on the back for yourself, but rather the satisfaction of knowing deep inside that you accomplished an important goal by empowering others to do their best. This is not entirely altruistic behavior; you will be creating the type of world in which you wish to live, and people will eventually form a subconscious sense that everything works better when you are around.

Allow things time to happen. Change takes time. Just because an idea enters your head does not mean that others will react immediately, especially if you are trying to effect change without taking credit. Be persistent but patient.

Remember this: the higher you are in the chain of command, the greater the impact you can have by sharing credit, or giving it away entirely.

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Our Time Is a Gift

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Our time is a gift. I worry that we take it for granted. Roughly 73,500 years ago, humans were migrating from Africa towards other parts of our planet. The Sumatera volcano exploded, changing Earth’s climate. All but a few thousand humans perished. Our race nearly ended, due to natural causes.

Our time is a gift.

In the whole of human history, people have never had it this good. In developed countries, many citizens control the climates within their homes and workplaces. We sleep in comfort, away from pests and predators, with plenty of food and pretty good medical care.

Even many of the less fortunate among us have access to public education and transportation, shelter, and enough food to survive.

Today, many eight-year-olds have free access to more information than the most educated leader of generations past. We also have a growing range of tools to help us gather, analyze, understand and act upon this information.

But we forget that change is everywhere, and we lull ourselves into believing that our safe, secure lives will last forever.

Our time is a gift.

My purpose is not to scare you into a cave. It is to remind you that the entire human race has struggled to get us to this point. We have an opportunity – and it may be brief – to make them proud.

We can think of ourselves as a single race united by mutual respect and common purposes. Or we can be selfish clans fighting for dominance while our opportunity ticks away.

We are a resourceful people. I have faith that all problems have solutions, and that our opportunities outweigh our challenges. But there is one thing we must never forget.

Our time is a gift.

We must be humble.

Generation after generation of humans believe they have all the answers. Sadly, many societies hate – and fear – ideas that challenge conventional thinking, the ones that provide a glimpse of what the future will truly be like.

In other words, those visionaries who can actually predict the future tend to be ridiculed, marginalized or murdered.

Just ask Galileo, who was sentenced to lifelong house arrest for promoting the ridiculous idea that the earth revolves around the sun.

Or consider our first American president, who was unfortunate to live in a time when bloodletting was a mainstream medical practice. In 1799, George Washington had a bad sore throat, and in treating this malady doctors drained roughly 125 ounces of Washington’s blood in 24 hours. (He died.)

I guarantee you that some of our mainstream practices will seem equally awful in retrospect; the problem is we don’t know which ones.

Approach life with an open mind. The greater your tendency to argue from a set position, the greater the likelihood that in retrospect you will be viewed as a well-meaning dolt.

Be generous and expert, trustworthy and clear, open-minded and adaptable, persistent and present.

Our time is a gift. Act that way.

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How to Be Positive

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Pretty much every job in the world has its bad moments.

Super Bowl-winning quarterback? By the end of the season your ribs, shoulders, knees and arm are so sore you probably have trouble turning over in bed.

Brilliant inventor/entrepreneur? I recently heard Elon Musk on the radio and he sounded like he was in physical pain having to do another media interview. The only time he perked up was when the host asked him an engineering question, which hinted at what he really loves to do.

Nobel Prize-winning scientist? You have to labor for 20 to 40 years before (maybe, please, maybe) the world takes notice. You have to beg for grants and rely on an endless stream of graduate students.

Normal professional? At various times, you will be underpaid and overworked. You may be forced to work for an idiot, or to promote someone you really, truly don’t like. You may feel caught in the middle, or underappreciated.

Yeah, but... I've been pretty negative

The most likable people generate their own energy. Their attitude does not depend on everything going well and everyone being so grateful for their good work.

They are just positive because they are positive.

I know all the reasons this is hard. I know what it’s like to be grumpy, discouraged, and frustrated. I’ve had years in which nothing in my career seemed to be working. Was I positive the whole time?

No.

And that was probably a big part of the problem.

Kim Cameron, Associate Dean of Executive Education at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan, cites the power of the heliotropic effect. He writes:

This effect is defined as the tendency in all living systems toward that which gives life and away from that which depletes life—toward positive energy and away from negative energy. All living systems have an inclination toward the positive—for example, plants lean toward the light, people learn and remember positive information faster and better than negative information, positive words predominate over negative words in all languages, all life forms from bacteria to mammals possess an inclination toward positive energy—so strategies that capitalize on the positive similarly tend to produce life-giving, flourishing outcomes in individuals and organizations.

HINT: don’t fight a natural law.

Let’s consider the opposite of being positive. When you’re in a room filled with people and someone near you is whining, complaining, and generally criticizing or attacking others… what do you do?

My bet is that you move away from him or her.

Yes, you are basically one super-smart, highly mobile plant.

Henrik Edberg, author of The Positivity Blog, has a number of useful suggestions for how to stay positive, three of which I’d like to share here:

1. Find the optimistic viewpoint in a negative situation.

Henrik asks himself questions such as, “What is one thing that is positive or good about this situation?” There’s always some way to come up with a good answer to this question, even if the answer is: I’m going to be so happy when this day is over.

2. Cultivate and live in a positive environment.

This is one of my primary rules in life. Your environment always wins. If you hang out with nasty and sullen people, you will become nasty and sullen. If you work for a Machiavellian company, you will eventually operate in a Machiavellian manner.

3. Go slowly.

Most anger is impatience in disguise. The faster you act, the more likely you are to lose your temper or do something rash.

It takes patience and willpower to remain positive, calm and coherent in the face of difficult challenges.

In Positive Psychology: An Introduction, Martin Seligman writes about the time he was weeding in the garden with his five-year-old daughter. He yelled at her because she was throwing weeds into the air and generally fooling around. She ran away and then came back. According to the article, here’s what happened next:

"Daddy, I want to talk to you."

"Yes, Nikki?"

"Daddy, do you remember before my fifth birthday?

"From the time I was three to the time I was five, I was a whiner. I whined every day. When I turned five, I decided not to whine anymore. That was the hardest thing I've ever done. And if I can stop whining, you can stop being such a grouch."

At that moment, Seligman resolved to change.

At this moment, you can do the same.

Intuition Is the Highest Form of Intelligence

Intuition, argues Gerd Gigerenzer, a director at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, is less about suddenly "knowing" the right answer and more about instinctively understanding what information is unimportant and can thus be discarded.

Gigerenzer, author of the book Gut Feelings: The Intelligence of the Unconscious, says that he is both intuitive and rational. "In my scientific work, I have hunches. I can’t explain always why I think a certain path is the right way, but I need to trust it and go ahead. I also have the ability to check these hunches and find out what they are about. That’s the science part. Now, in private life, I rely on instinct. For instance, when I first met my wife, I didn’t do computations. Nor did she."

I'm telling you this because recently one of my readers, Joy Boleda, posed a question that stopped me in my tracks:

What about intuition? It has never been titled as a form of intelligence, but would you think that someone who has great intuition in things, has more intelligence?

My "gut instinct" is to say yes, especially when we are talking about people who are already intellectually curious, rigorous in their pursuit of knowledge, and willing to challenge their own assumptions.

Let me put this a bit simpler. If all you do is sit in a chair and trust your intuition, you are not exercising much intelligence. But if you take a deep dive into a subject and study numerous possibilities, you are exercising intelligence when your gut instinct tells you what is - and isn't - important.

In some respects, intuition could be thought of as a clear understanding of collective intelligence. For example, most websites are today organized in an intuitive way, which means they are easy for most people to understand and navigate. This approach evolved after many years of chaos online, as a common wisdom emerged over what information was superfluous and what was essential (i.e. About Us = essential).

Theo Humphries argues that intuitive design can be described as "understandable without the use of instructions". This is true when an object makes sense to most people because they share a common understanding of the way things work.

You might say that I'm a believer in the power of disciplined intuition. Do your legwork, use your brain, share logical arguments, and I'll trust and respect your intuitive powers. But if you merely sit in your hammock and ask me to trust your intuition, I'll quickly be out the door without saying goodbye.

I say this from personal experience; the more research I do, the better my intuition works.

Albert Einstein said, "The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift."

Sometimes, a corporate mandate or group-think or your desire to produce a certain outcome can cause your rational mind to go in the wrong direction. At times like these, it is intuition that holds the power to save you. That "bad feeling" gnawing away at you is your intuition telling you that no matter how badly you might wish to talk yourself into this direction, it is the wrong way to go.

Smart people listen to those feelings. And the smartest people among us - the ones who make great intellectual leaps forward - cannot do this without harnessing the power of intuition.

Image credit: R~P~M/Flickr

You might also like the next article in this series, Do You Believe in God, But Not Intuition?


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More Ways to Be Ridiculously Likable

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Gimme one second… wait… I know I should be opening this article, but my son just texted me and… let me see… why is this so complicated?… I just want to check the movie times… no, I don’t want Bridgeport, I want Norwalk – why doesn’t this website know my preferences by now?… Okay… Okay… Got it. Now, where were we?

Did I just make you feel important?

No.

Chances are, through my inattention, I inadvertently gave you the impression that you don’t matter to me.

That’s what happens when you don’t pay attention. If you’re like most people, you mess up a lot of career opportunities because you don’t pay attention. You accidentally slight or outright insult others, without even knowing it.

For example, if you’re shy, colleagues may think you are aloof or cold.

There is a selfish, personal aspect to likability. We tend not to like people who don’t like us. Call this petty or immature, but it’s true.

I’d argue that if a person you initially dislike gives you enough sincere personal attention, you probably will grow to like them a bit more. If you already like someone, this sort of personal attention will further strengthen your feelings.

Here’s the problem: for many of us, inattention runs rampant. We mistakenly believe that we can multitask. If you believe this to be true, try juggling three balls while also having an intense, personal conversation. I’m not making an analogy here; I literally mean: try juggling three balls.

You can’t do it. Sure, you can pay vague attention to another person while checking your text messages or thinking about what to eat for dinner, but you can’t maintain the sort of intense personal focus that makes you likable.

By the way, the image I used at the top of this piece is eye-catching, but it appears to suggest that the path to likability is to... hypnotize (?) others. Obviously, that's not true. But the right path does require similar focus. Be interested in them, rather than in getting them to do something.

Truth be told, this requires a bit of practice. You want to pay attention, but not overwhelm people. Here are three simple ways to get started:

 

1. Listen more than you talk.

Being with someone is not the same thing as paying attention. I have a few friends who can spend an hour in a room with me and never once ask a single question about my life, experiences or perceptions.

2. Ask questions that prove you are listening.

To prove that you understand what someone is saying, ask questions that build on the points they are making. For example, if you and I were talking right now, you might say, “So by not paying attention, I’m making myself less likable, right?”

Yep, that’s it exactly.

3. Dig deeper.

If you want to have 100 discussions about the weather each week, stick with superficial questions. Personally, this bores me to tears. I’d much rather ask questions that surprise you and make you think, such as, “Besides money, what stops you from quitting your job and taking a year to travel the world?”

Being genuinely curious about another person’s life makes you more appealing. The same is true when you’re looking for a job… the best way to ace an interview is to do your research in advance and deeply understand the interviewer’s business.

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