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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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?


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.