The New Yeoman

Thoughts on Making a Living

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A Moped, a Wheelbarrow, and Grit

I met a man on Friday while I was walking around Reno waiting for my car that was being serviced. I was vexed with my work and I was trying to sort it out in my head while I walked. I mean I was wound up tight over some trivial issue. I probably had a scowl on my face. I was totally in my own head.

I spotted him as he rode past me on his moped pulling a two-wheeled wheelbarrow. My first thought was, “That is so cool!” I suspected he was a guy trying start his landscaping business. However, a little further down the road, I saw him pulled up next to a dumpster. At first, my opinion of him changed, but then I thought “Why?”

I went over to talk to him. I told him I liked his rig. He said it was much better than pushing a shopping cart around. However, it had gotten him in trouble with a traffic cop who had recently given him a ticket for riding his moped in a bicycle lane. He showed me a contraption that had a matching backpack that he had just found in a dumpster. He had me guess what it was, but I could not. He popped it open and it was a combined propane lamp and stove with a matching backpack. It had probably cost $50 or more when new. He said he thought he could get it going and sell it to someone. He asked me what I was doing and I told him I was walking while my car was in the shop. He immediately asked what was wrong with my car and asked if I needed some help. I explained that it was just a routine service, but thanked him for the offer. We talked about a few other things. It was still hot for the 1st of October, but supposed to turn cold in the next few days. (Do people who live on the street hear about the weather forecast? Or does it just sneak up on them?)

He asked if I was a soldier. I told him no, but I had been at one point earlier in my life. He said he guessed that, because I stopped to talk to him. He had slept in front of a recruiting center the other night. He had been awakened by a female officer who handed him a Egg McMuffin, but told him he couldn’t sleep there. He said soldiers had always been good to him. That made my eyes well up a little. Soldiers know what it is like to sleep on the floor and how to make equipment work for us in odd combinations. Soldiers also know that there, but for the grace of God, go I.

I wished him good luck and repeated that I really liked his rig. I walked away thinking about him and how blessed I am. The walk had worked for my tangled mind, but not in the way I had supposed when I set off. A hundred yards down the sidewalk, I realized I did not get his name. In most social circles that is the first thing I get when I meet someone. I was ashamed of myself, so I turned around and went back. I asked him his name. He said it was “JT” and I laughed and said, “Well, mine is TJ.” We said good-bye again with a hand shake.

I’ve got no profound truth for you here, Reader, but I know who had more grit and grace at that moment next to a dumpster in a parking lot in Reno, Nevada.

His name is JT and he rides a moped and pulls a wheelbarrow around Reno trying to make a living. It was 31° in Reno this morning.

The IMF, Foxes, and Hedgehogs

This article about the recent failures of the IMF in relation to the Greece/Euro problem is instructive about a lot of modern bureaucracies and civil service “expertise” capture, I think.

Groupthink and mechanistic analyses based on principles that are not widely understood and ground out with singular variables are common in modern bureaucracies of all types. Those variables that are politically influenced are especially problematic. How many states and cities in the USA are facing insolvency based on a single pension fund return assumption?

There is such confidence in the layer upon layer analysis that every bureaucrat is trusting 10 expert analyses to be right when only one being wrong is enough to scuttle the entire project. Has anyone else ever seen an entire business case fail/succeed with the slight change of the discount rate?

I think this problem is roiling across many areas of our society from government to business to public policy to education.

Increasingly, I feel less like the Fox and more like the Hedgehog.

Image credit –
By attributed to Johann Friedrich Grooth (1717-1806) (Dorotheum) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

It is no secret that I like Mike Rowe. Here is an interview with him at the National Review from 15 June. This article just repeats his main theme of education comes in many forms and a university education is not right for everyone, but one of the links led me to a commencement video he made which talks more about passion and how to use it. “Do not follow your passion, but bring it along with you.” Good advice. The video below is worth 5 minutes and 18 seconds of your time, especially if you are 17 years old.

Elliott Hulse and Non-Jobs

I like Elliott Hulse. The guy is mesmerizing. How often do you run into a guy who is so physically fit that is this eloquent? If you are an older guy like me looking to improve your health, check his Strength Camp video channel. If you are a young person and are debating university, watch this one. If you don’t like the cursing, ignore it. Elliott is speaking to an audience that he understands and the cursing helps his authenticity. I love his message which is truer than many will accept.

Elliott’s view on NonJobs is boiled down to these points.

  1. Find something you love. This is sometimes hard, but Hulse’s point is that you have to keep searching, even, no, especially when you’ve found it.
  2. Share the love. I like his point about credentials. If you get a degree… a piece of paper, you may or may not know much about it. It probably depends on why you went for the degree. However, if you LOVE a topic, you “ooze” your knowledge and that is attractive to other people. It is far more attractive than a degree.
  3. Receive the love. Our world is cynical, but the love does come back, if we gave it freely. I can’t tell you how many times I have bought something after having someone give me something for free that I loved and valued. I want more of that person, I feel a connection with them, and I want to make sure they are fairly compensated for that.

Watch this video below and if you like it, you can get more from Elliott at the NonJob website.

Disclosure: I get no payment of any kind from Elliott Hulse or any of his affiliated businesses. I am just inspired by the guy. Good luck, Elliott.

Coincidence?

Coincidence? – Four very similar views from four very different people of what it takes to get into a zone and create work of lasting value.

Flow – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

War of Art – Steven Pressfield

Deep Work – Cal Newport

Lose Yourself – Eminem

Deep Work and Meetings

Here is a good article from Help Scout on How to Sabotage Any Meeting. In reference to my previous post on Deep Work, the work that gets done at meetings is normally bad too, because everyone is flitting about on the surface with too many distractions. Number three on How to Sabotage Any Meeting,

Do synthesis work at the meeting

…. I’ve learned the hard way that while meetings are useful for outlining what can be done, they’re god-awful for putting paint on the canvas. Feedback becomes relevant when The Thing has taken shape—even if it’s just a fragment of the final result.

Collaboration has its limits. Use meetings to chart the course, to get visceral reactions along the way, and to push past the finish line. Don’t use them to synthesize on the spot. Create alone, decide together.

I couldn’t agree more. Rather than spending the time to do the Deep Work and bring a thoughtful proposal to the table, most people are either too lazy, distracted, or scared. Lazy, because they are trying to get others to do their work or don’t want to do more than one iteration. Distracted, because they have lost the discipline to do Deep Work. Scared that their Deep Work would look amateurish. My advice on this last one is to not worry. If you really do think about the issue deeply and consider the situation, you will almost always out-think the distracted rest-of-us at the meeting.

That article about The Collaboration Curse from The Economist is a good one too. Good fodder for another post.

Photo Credit:

Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library. “Harlem branch, Boys club meeting” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47d9-8207-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

Beautiful Questions in a Target Rich Environment

“Always the beautiful answer who asks a more beautiful question.” ― ee cummings

In A More Beautiful Question, Warren Berger makes the case that in a world full of easily accessed knowledge, the real skill is to pose better questions. I like the title wording of Warren Berger via ee cummings. Our new world is not bereft of questions. I get tons of them. Most of them could be solved by the person asking them with a DuckDuckGo search.

In fact, our new world is full of answers and full of questions. However, the answers often have no context and people don’t often frame the questions well. Part of this ties in with what I wrote last week in Deep Work and Self Education. The ability to think of a really good question is often what separates true understanding from mere collections of fact. What keeps us from formulating a good question is often not thinking about it deeply, because we are busy and awash in information. Its a vicious circle, but one we must break.

Elegant questions are what make our work meaningful and give us real priorities, rather than artificial deadlines to do something. Taking the time to answer the basics, understand them, help others understand them, and put them in context before posing an intelligent question is what separates the professional from the amateur. Insightful questions are also what gets the attention of the experts you may be seeking to involve in your project or cause. The best way to be ignored in professional circles, and social circles too, is to ask simple questions that show no understanding or empathy for others’ time or concerns. What intrigues people is when you ask something that shows you spent some time trying to understand the subject and you are looking to them for a deeper understanding.

Berger’s theme is that more beautiful questions are what is needed to increase innovation. To tie in Steven Johnson’s assertion that good ideas are derived from the chaos at the edge of current knowledge, the glut of information and lack of good questions present a target rich environment. For those who can grasp the context and continue to push out the knowledge with perceptive questions, the adjacent possible comes into view.

I also think that stimulating questions make for better plans. What I really like about the Minto method and the Army Operations Order is that you start with a fully acknowledged Situation and Complication before you decide what you should do and how you should do it. Using modern Army parlance, “The enemy gets a vote.” By making this understanding explicit, one gains the confidence of the people one will eventually ask to do something. With that confidence and an expectation that those involved will also be expected to ask compelling questions, the network mind is activated.

If you are looking for your next professional read, I highly recommend Berger’s A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas.

Deep Work and Self Education

In his new book, Deep Work, author Cal Newport goes in to detail about why the ability to focus on work that requires deep thought and multiple levels of inquiry has become a competitive edge. No doubt, this type of work has always been relatively rare. However, it is more so these days due to the much discussed proliferation of technologies that nip at your attention like a pack of hyenas trying to pick off the weak in the wildebeest herd. Sadly, in our world, the attention-hyenas have grown fat and don’t even have to give chase. We sit in our chairs and wait for them every morning.

I think Newport’s thesis is correct. The ability, not the time, is actually what is missing. Lots of people say that they just don’t have the time to set aside and think deeply on things that are important to them. However, I don’t need to quote specifics –about the billions who use social media all day long or the people who respond to emails in seconds like it is some lab experiment to grab pellets when the bell rings– to make the point that we are not using the time wisely. (yes, I see the irony in this article… get back to work 😉

Because we have been doing this now for one or two decades, many of us have lost our ability to do the deep work even when we have the time. Stare at a blank document or project plan for twenty minutes, meet the first obstacle, and freeze. Send an email to Fred to see if he got that new data. Text Mary for an update on how the meeting went. Read our “professional” newsfeed for the fourth time this morning, etc. We are all talking about talking about talking. We’re just doing it on new and different platforms.

The ability to think deeply and present new ideas on how to tackle problems is now the rarest of things. I often see this in the board room. The conversation flies around, but nothing is tackled in depth. No one brings deep critical thinking to the table. Every one just brings the latest data, report or presentation. None of it sticks to the walls and becomes deep conversation.

I agree with Newport on career development too. If a person wants to make themselves valuable to themselves or to an organization, they need to develop the ability to go into a quiet room, think deeply on an issue, and come out with either a new option on the issue or deep analysis of which known options are better and actionable. Either output is far more valuable than anyone else is likely to bring to the table.

When one ties this ability with the other rarity of the modern world which is the ability to self-educate, a person will have a formidable set of skills. In fact, I’ll go further. Teaching yourself to A) work deeply and B) self educate is the whole education that most should be seeking. If one develops the discipline and skill to work deeply on any topic and develops the skills to educate themselves with the near-universal amount of knowledge available today, there is no need to predict what comes next. One with these two capabilities doesn’t care. They can analyze any market, make deeply considered choices, and educate themselves to tackle what they choose. If they are wrong, they can start again. They are not one-trick ponies. In other words, strive to be adaptable, not prescient.

Finally, I think this is New Yeoman territory too. Any trade is susceptable to improvement in these skills. Don’t waste time in the truck on Facebook before the next customer call. Read the trade journal and come up with new ideas for your customer. Consider how your invoices and receipts may help you convert more sales. Develop that nagging idea you’ve had for a new specialized tool. Think deeply, turn it into digestable chunks of work and take action.

Slavery

Charles Bukowski via Brain Pickings,
In a letter to a friend that encouraged him to pursue his art, “You know my old saying,”

“Slavery was never abolished, it was only extended to include all the colors.”

IMHO, it is not just artists that this applies to. It applies to everyone who would rather work for themselves rather than toil for someone else for a wage that erodes in one form or another over time. It is certainly right for many, but I truly believe that a lot more people are employed than should be. A size-able chunk of the employed workforce owe it to themselves to become self-employed and do greater (or just happier) things to put food on the table.

In another letter via Jay Dougherty, Bukowski writes,

“I have one of two choices–stay in the postoffice and go crazy…or stay out here and play at writer and starve. I have decided to starve.”

That was Bukowski at age 49. It took him a long time to stop working for someone else and start doing what he was meant to do. It is never too late.

Another Reason to Choose Your University Carefully

Clear and spectacular answers to questions about which university to attend are hard to find. However, a recent study published in Contemporary Economic Policy by academics Eric R. Eide, Michael J. Hilmer, and Mark H. Showalter has done just that when speaking about financial returns on STEM degrees. In an article in The Wall Street Journal they state,

What we found startled us. For STEM-related majors, average earnings don’t vary much among the college categories. For example, we find no statistically significant differences in average earnings for science majors between selective schools and either midtier or less-selective schools. Likewise, there’s no significant earnings difference between engineering graduates from selective and less-selective colleges, and only a marginally significant difference between selective and midtier colleges.

This is huge for two reasons:

  1. If a person is going to major in a STEM discipline, his local state school may be just as good as Stanford or Harvard, if financial return is the most important issue to them. So, unless the person is killing it in school, has a perfect SAT, and/or is a recognized genius (and in that case, they are probably going heavily subsidized anyway), why should they spend the price differential between Vanderbilt and the University of Tennessee?
  2. It is a great way to get a kid to wake up if they are looking to do a humanities or business degree at a less than stellar institution. If they are not doing very well in those disciplines and cannot get into and elite school, then the financial math is hard to justify.

This is really good information for those about to spend or borrow an enormous amount of money to go to an elite school to study a STEM discipline. Expect the push-back from the elite universities to be fierce and quick.

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