Who do you want to be

I think we should ask our children this question more. It helps us take the pulse of the kind of influence that the external environment, ourselves and the activities we allow them to engage in, have on them. Kids internalise the notions of good and bad mostly from the social environment around them and they learn what is acceptable or not. They are feeling the contours of our social interactions and the consequences of it.

To ask them who they want to be is to help them consolidate their learnings and have them recognise consistencies or inconsistencies without being explicit about it. I recall asking my young little 5-year old cousin, ‘why are you jumping around?’ and she replied ‘I’m a frog’. Then when she starting walking instead of jumping, I asked ‘why are you walking now?’ and she responded promptly, ‘I’m a penguin’. There is clearly this sense of our actions and behaviours explained in terms of our identity even from that early age.

Being careful in moulding and helping children understand where and how they find their identity is so important because that’s going to affect the way they think about work and play. For children who responds saying they want to be ‘a doctor’ or a ‘firefighter’, then parents or adults around them should recognise perhaps they already equate identity to professions or jobs. If they respond based on character values (eg. A kind person) or socio-economic status (eg. Rich person), you’d also realise how much those sort of values you’re inculcating in them.

And for now, it’s probably a good thing we should be reflecting upon as an adult. Who did we want to be and did we become him/her? Why?

Rising expectations

If we take stock of the advancement in living standards over the course of the last 3 generations, the improvements have undoubtedly been phenomenal. Yet the average experience of life as perceived subjectively seemed to have barely become more joyful.

If anything, our generation seem more disappointed, emotionally worn and exhausted than the previous. I’m afraid it is entirely because out expectations, our hopes and dreams have continually outpaced the improvements we experienced.

Every time something genuinely gets better, our expectation rises by so much more. And it seems, we have come to associate expectations with having standards that it is a bit toxic on our mental health. We have to learn to clean up our thinking about standards we uphold for ourselves and the kind of expectations we put upon others. Making others responsible for our happiness is pretty much a sure route to unhappiness.

Purpose on a platter

The fresh grads entering the job market and other young adults still finding their bearings in the market often want to be paid well and also have a sense of purpose in their career. They sometimes fantasize about the sense of purpose in fields they did not enter: medicine, teaching, psychology, etc.

On the other hand I’ve known cynical doctors, wearied teachers and exhausted psychologists who knows their purpose but are so worn out by work they wonder how things square. Then there are banker friends who made tonnes of money and think they need to do their part for the world and hence, get involved in sustainable finance (which honestly have mixed track record and credentials).

Purpose does not come with a job; at least not served on a platter. The story that runs in our mind about our work gives us the sense of purpose. Of course the story must compel us positively and move us forward in the direction the career tend towards. This alignment is not to be taken for granted. One can be promoted into misalignment because the career progress doesn’t fit the story of greater purpose – it can become diminished purpose.

That is why I care so much about stories. Especially the stories we tell ourselves; and this is why I enjoy coaching others especially on careers – the alignment (purpose), the planning (strategy) and the tactics involved. I’m writing an eBook which I hope to share with my readers. Watch this space for more details to follow.

Nonlinear Development

Our minds seem to struggle with nonlinearity more than we should. Given how much of reality is actually nonlinear, it’s a wonder why we are still stuck with wanting things to be linear, and panicking when the progress bar is not moving as time moves forward. It is important to anticipate when further actions needs to be taken as things are not progressing well so it is important to track progress but being unable to appreciate non-linearity means we can misallocate attention and resources.

There were many occasions when I used to organise events and we review sign-up rates or “ticket sales” weekly as we approach the events. Of course things will always be slow at the start but then it tends to pick up, and even so, in a very uneven manner where it accelerates crazily a few days before the event. People tend to put off securing their places at events until closer to the date thinking they don’t want to commit their calendar so early on in time. But the management will be unduly worried about poor turnout at the events and activate disproportionately more resources to drive the numbers.

Being able to look at past figures and the growth curve from past experience helps but not perfectly because we tend to insert those ‘boost’ right before the late stages just before the sign-ups pick up wildly. So we can even think that those ‘boost’ actions (like placing more ads) actually works. Sometimes, they create so much awareness even after the event sell out that we have to turn people away. And appreciation for nonlinearity is important for any leader and one who is developing a vision for the future.

Because the journey there would not be linear and the assurance that ‘we will get there’ is not going to come from data, or your people, but from your commitment to your vision.

Strategy and Tactics II

Go figure out how to increase sales. What should we do when the competitors cut price? Those guys are opening more stores and taking our customers, how? What is the “strategy” to deal with impunctual employees? How can we change the “policy” to help alleviate burn out?

All of these are tactics. And we are so consumed by them at work. We are constantly being pestered to work on tactics, and there’s so much to prepare and do just to keep up. When will it end? There’s always the next shiny object to chase. Obsession with tactics creates anxiety and a bottomless hole that is never filled.

If we can isolate ourselves and consider our strategy, to take in the signals and general, higher level information and sift out the noise. And ask ourselves who are we serving, what is it for? Allow our tactics to flow from there and when our tactics fail we go back and look at how much they contribute to the strategy. As I mentioned before in the solar industry example; sometimes it’s about solving a particular conundrum in the industry rather than being the winner. Other times, it’s forging a way forward when times are difficult.

This “big” thinking alleviates that anxiety and keeps one focused on those key questions. Who are we serving and what is it for?

Bad guy and other tensions

We don’t like to give negative feedback to people because it puts tension and makes us the bad guy. And then when we do give the feedback, it becomes a criticism. Navigating this tension of being the good guy and doing the right thing seems tough because we have this false dichotomy that either we are focused on outcomes, and people have to suffer – or we are focused on people and outcomes have to suffer.

I don’t agree. Our mental circuitry moves thoughts in this direction because of our obsession with speed, which I generally don’t agree with. Though I confess I fall for that trap too. We can be people and outcome oriented at the same time because it is after all the people who are generating the outcomes.

The balance comes in feedback when we focus on the circumstances, what can and cannot be changed, and on the mistake itself rather than the person. If someone drops something, he dropped something – it can mean he is clumsy but it may not. Criticism masked feedback that is levered at the identity of a person will not be appreciated.

And because people confuse the two, they think giving negative feedback is being a bad person. That intenal conflict and negative self-perception fuels the emotional-charge nature of this activity. We sometimes think not making the personal attack is sugar-coating and we switch between not wanting to be the hypocritical while not wanting to be the sufferer of the ignorance of the perpetrator.

We can all contribute to better working environments by first being better at giving and receiving feedback. It is an effective way to care and we can become more effective in that.

Slow Growth

I did geography when I was in Junior College as part of preparation for A Levels. There was only a class of about 12 science students in the whole cohort in that class. And we spent about half of the subject studying Physical Geography- which is about the most science you can get in a subject somehow classified as a humanity. Maybe Economics comes close but at A Levels, it was mostly dumbed-down nonsense nowhere close to the reality of the discipline.

So I had spent lots of time understanding processes of weathering, of meandering rivers and changing landscapes – through earthquakes over seconds or minutes, volanic eruptions over days, seasonal storms over weeks, floods that can be month-long or other gentler processes over years.

For most part, change in our natural landscapes take place silently, over a really long time. And more often than not, they are shaped not by outwardly resisting the status quo, but by almost blending into it while effecting change. The rock changes the course of a stream but the stream water reshapes the rock.

If we are committed to growing slowly and changing the world around us slowly, we will find that time is on our side. But we need to start with the belief and the story about what we are doing.

Need for speed

Speed can be deceiving. The quick-witted guy, responsive customer service officer, next-day delivery all are servicing our psychology rather than our actual needs.

When crisis strikes, we want to be in action, do something rather than nothing so the one who makes decision fast stands out as a “leader” regardless of the quality of decision. Because it’s the best the person may be able to do at that time – and it was seen as better than doing nothing.

The responsive customer service officer gives the impression your needs are being attended to, and gives assurance of attention to you though what you need is their attention on the problem.

Next day delivery gives you the sense you’ll be getting it soon and the item you need is making its way towards you upon your check out. It gives you a sense it’s not so different from buying it at the store, even if you actually really only need it much later.

Speed is a proxy to a sense of having a solution but it is not the solution itself. So be really careful when you celebrate speed or hunger for it. Because by itself, it means nothing.

Knowledge & Denials

“Ignorance is bliss” manifest itself in different ways in life. And very often ignorance is thought of as bliss when new knowledge does not conform with one’s world view. When for example, we have something on our bodies we do not want to get examined for fear we are suffering from some severe condition or the costs of addressing it. Or when companies resist more thorough internal audits for fear of what it might uncover.

Change often gets blocked because the changes will throw up new knowledge that challenges the prevailing paradigm. You might only discover you’ve been calculating a parameter wrongly when you use a different way to do it (which theoretically is supposed to produce the same result).

Are you learning new things everyday? Do you only learn things that fits your current paradigm? Are you allowing new knowledge to update your paradigm? How do you respond to information or knowledge challenging your world view? Is ignorance bliss?

Purpose at work

We might think if we are an accountant, then we need to be the best and our purpose at work is to deliver accurate numbers. If we make mistakes and all, that would be to fail our purpose. Or that all the organisation KPIs would be our purpose and if we get a poor performance grade, we fail our purpose.

Yet your purpose might be to support your colleagues who are in need of help or guidance. Your purpose can be to be an important friend of the janitor who feels outcast. Or to improve the culture of the workplace by the grace and manner you deal with people. Work does not just involve results and KPI; you may never get to work for an organisation or department whose business/purpose aligns with your values. And surely, you will need to look beyond for what is meaningful to you.

During this period of the pandemic, when everyone is working from home, you might see your true purpose at work taken away from you. Maybe you used to refill the snacks in the pantry or bring that box of doughnuts; maybe you used to have coffee with the janitor each day before you start work. And now all these are gone. We can feel empty and not know why – but if you cultivate that awareness of this purpose you are serving, you can take steps in the current context to continue fulfilling it.

And may you find that sense of purpose filling you again.