Reframe to See the Gain

Sun is Coming Out from Behind by public-sector-lists.com images ®

Last month I visited the town where I grew up for the first time in years and found myself remembering helpful words of wisdom I’d recently read.

My visit had put me in reflective mood, particularly in regards to my career path and related decisions I’d made.

One trigger was the sight of numerous “Congratulations Class of 2013” signs around town for the new graduates of the high school I’d attended years ago. These signs made me wonder what I would choose to study in college if I were graduating high school now – with the advantage of my current knowledge about myself and the world.

I began to imagine different fields of study and different careers thereafter. Inevitably I compared those fantasies to my actual career and wondered if I’d have been happier had I’d taken one of those alternative paths.

That’s when I remembered the sage advice that I’d read weeks earlier.

It had come from Harvard psychiatrist George Vaillant who recently published a book about the famous Grant Study, which he directed for many years. This study has followed the lives of hundreds of men from the Boston area since 1938 with the goal of determining what leads to long and happy lives.

In response to interview questions about lessons learned from the men who had achieved contentment, Vaillant shared the following about looking back at choices one has made (and the resulting tradeoff caused when one chooses to pursue X instead of Y or Z):

For anyone dealing with disappointment about lost opportunities, I would ask them to reframe the question and focus on what they gained by taking the paths they chose.

I tried doing this – and learned that such “reframing” took a concerted effort. My mind didn’t easily let go of the ideas it’d previously been entertaining.

However, I was able to change my focus when I realized and accepted the inherent unfairness of comparing idealized outcomes (one fantasizes about best-case scenarios not potential failures) with actual occurrences.

I thought about unique things I’d experienced, interesting people I’d met, and friends I’d made at each of my jobs. I also thought about how my career had unexpectedly taken me to a new city, where I met my wife and where we started a family.

Once truly focused on this thought process, my inner voice was calmed by the “reframed” perspective and the acknowledgement that I enjoy the type of work I do.

Curious to learn more about the Grant Study and Dr. Vaillant’s findings I found and read a few more articles. All included insightful points. If interested, here are a couple of the shorter ones:

I’m considering reading Dr. Vaillant’s new book, Triumphs of Experience.

As always, I’d love to hear opinions about these topics, whether in the comments section below or via email using the ‘contact’ form.

Fall In Love with Someone Else

Image courtesy of Ani-Bee (Creative Common license)

A recruiter recently contacted me about a marketing position. After describing the role, he told me the hiring executive’s ideal candidate would have experience working in three specific industries.

I looked up the hiring executive’s profile on LinkedIn and – surprise! – his background matched what he wanted from his ideal candidate.

I was reminded of the Seinfeld scene in which Jerry tells Kramer that he’s fallen in love with a woman who’s just like himself:  “Now I know what I’ve been looking for all these years. Myself! I’ve been waiting for me to come along. And now I’ve swept myself off my feet!”

In the case of the hiring executive, looking for such a close match to his own background was a somewhat extreme case (perhaps driven by an insecurity that’s allayed by thinking, “I’m really good at my job; so for someone else to be good they need to be like me”) of what I see as an all-too-common mistake:  filling positions with people of similar professional backgrounds.

It’s obviously very common to see job postings that ask for experience in the same industry as the given opening.

In my opinion, the value of this similar experience is greatly exaggerated.

In fact, in most cases it’d probably be better for hiring managers to look for intelligent and curious people from other industries. Every company is already filled with people who know its particular industry. What’s more valuable is adding outside perspectives.

Sure, new employees coming from different industries will take a little longer to get up to speed. However, in the case of intelligent hires, that’s only a short-term issue.

Medium- to long-term, the slower learning curve will likely be outweighed by the benefits of an outside perspective:  asking different questions, generating different insights and adding new ideas.

Team leaders who want to foster innovation and creative problem solving should apply the lesson of America’s melting pot (that the convergence of people of many different backgrounds yields creative energy) not only to racial/ethnic/cultural diversity but also career-background diversity.

As for Jerry Seinfeld’s character, he learned the hard way. After getting engaged to Jeannie Steinman, he confessed to Kramer, “I think I may have made a big mistake… All of a sudden it hit me and I realized what the problem is… I can’t be with someone like me, I hate myself!”

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For a laugh:  I found the following video — someone stitched together the Jeannie Steinman story line and uploaded it to YouTube.

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(I didn’t upload this video to YouTube. I’m pulling into the post a video somebody else uploaded. If the legal copyright holder has any concerns, please notify me using the Contact form found via the above header navigation).

Reminder to self: Stop

An ideal to take a break (Mykonos patio with view of harbor and beach)

I highly recommend a recent NY Times article by Tony Schwartz titled “Relax! You’ll Be More Productive.”

If you’re like me – often eating lunch at your desk; not always using all your allotted vacation time – you’ll probably agree the article is full of good reminders.

The key point of the article is that while it’s common to work longer and longer hours to get more done, many of us would actually increase our productivity (and presumably our creativity) by resting more.

“Paradoxically, the best way to get more done may be to spend more time doing less. A new and growing body of multidisciplinary research shows that strategic renewal — including daytime workouts, short afternoon naps, longer sleep hours, more time away from the office and longer, more frequent vacations — boosts productivity, job performance and, of course, health.”

I definitely agree about afternoon naps. I previously worked in Japan in an environment that was open to short naps. Closing my eyes when needed and sleeping for 10-15 minutes left me much more energetic than another cup of coffee or tea would have.

Companies that embrace napping – perhaps only a minority of progressive companies in the U.S. – are on the right track.

A concept discussed in the article I was less familiar with is that “during the day we move from a state of alertness progressively into physiological fatigue approximately every 90 minutes” and consequently “working in 90-minute intervals turns out to be a prescription for maximizing productivity.”

I couldn’t guess the number of days I’ve pushed through an entire afternoon, 1pm to 6pm, if not longer, without a meaningful break.

I’m interested in seeing the effect of spacing out two meaningful breaks during this period – if possible, short walks outside or a few trips up and down the office building staircase.

“Relax! You’ll Be More Productive” is currently ranked as the NY Time’s most emailed article over the past 30 days. With business culture seemingly hurtling toward an ever-more-breakneck pace, it’s understandable why.

Am I as dumb as I feel?

A senior and seasoned executive I know pretty well confided in me more than once that a critical, sharp-tongued person to whom he had to answer at work made him question his own intelligence.

“He makes me feel dumb. I know I’m not dumb. But when I try to explain something it’s like my brain turns to jelly.”

It turns out that according to academic research, my friend might not have just felt less intelligent than normal when in the presence of the difficult executive — he might actually have been so.

A recent opinion article in the New York Times written by Annie Murphy Paul titled “It’s Not Me, It’s You,” discussed research showing that intelligence isn’t static and that social forces can significantly impact test scores, academic achievement and I.Q.

The article references work by various psychologists, including Joshua Aronson, an associate professor at NYU. Murphy Paul wrote:

“Professor Aronson calls the doltishness induced by an uncomfortable social situation ‘conditional stupidity.’ We should use that insight to create the conditions for brilliance.”

The author focused her attention on the research’s implications for childhood education, such as the importance of educators putting in place social environments in which children can excel.

However, the concepts outlined in the article also serve as a good reminder for managers and team leaders.

We typically hear about the importance of creating positive work environments in which employees feel valued and secure to foster creativity and risk taking and increase morale.

The research discussed in the New York Times article adds that a company’s social environment also affects the level of cognitive ability at which employees function.

Managers should ensure they’re creating environments in which team members are given the right to feel intelligent, to enable them to think and contribute to the fullest extent of their intellectual abilities.

An obvious step is to not tolerate dismissive, condescending or belittling attitudes – i.e., essentially the type of behavior that tripped up my friend.

Another is to embrace the adage “compliment in public and criticize in private.”

Less obvious I think (and maybe harder to implement because of prevailing mindsets) is not allowing people to be boxed into role stereotypes.

Think of someone from the finance department who’s in a meeting during which the conversation takes an unscheduled turn when a bunch of marketers in the room start brainstorming new marketing messages. The finance guy might conceive of a great contribution, but it’s less likely to happen if he’s been conditioned to believe that people in finance jobs aren’t creative.

Enlightened management should not only encourage the sharing of opinions and ideas but should also attempt to break down mental barriers that prevent them from occurring in the first place.

That includes role stereotypes, which are commonly joked about in the workplace. By words and example, managers should encourage the idea that a person’s abilities aren’t defined by his/her job or department.

The problem is that stereotypes about ability – as the psychology research indicates – tend to become self-fulfilling prophecies.

In a world where headcount is stretched thin, technical complexity is spiraling upwards and companies count on individuals to contribute ever-higher rates of productivity, there’s a tremendous onus on managers to maximize human resources. Achieving this requires letting those humans be as intelligent as possible.