Jeff Bezos’ “Regret Minimization Framework”

March 4, 2010

A friend (Thanks Morgan!)  just passed this great video of Jeff Bezos talking about his thought process when deciding to leave his “good job” to take a flyer and found Amazon.com. I love the way he frames it. Essentially, when I’m 80 and looking back, how can I minimize my disappointment with paths not taken? Stated differently, how do I follow my heart? If I do that and it doesn’t work out I may be OK. But if I go counter to my heart and it doesn’t work out, I’ll be bitter.

Take a look.  Link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jwG_qR6XmDQ


Managing Your Priorities Over Time

February 28, 2010

I was reconnecting with good friends and former colleagues this week and was struck by a few common threads. I got a few blog post ideas from them, but the one I’ll focus on is the impact of stability versus change as well as different categories of priorities in your personal and professional life and the impact your life stage can have on your emphasis.

In three different conversations in one day with executives running significant operations, all had personal commentary on where they were in their life and had thoughtfully come to their own conclusions. Each was trading off effort and engagement in career with personal career goals beyond current job and also against their life & family realities.

I see the same thing with my students. Some people have tremendous career ambitions, some merely want good work and fair compensation to fund their lives and goals beyond work. Many haven’t decided where they fall on that continuum. That’s part of the struggle. And by the way, the answer is different at different points in your life.

The tough part is sometimes we have to choose. Advice that looks like “you can have it all” strikes me as a partial truth. First – “all of what?” I’ve written on defining your goals before. Suffice it to say, you have to actually decide on some priorities along the way or circumstances will decide for you.

I’m going to avoid all my “what do you want” and “will that make you happy” commentary and focus on thinking specifically about how many moving parts do you have in your career and life at one time.

Balancing Priorities

A former boss once commented “you can have it all, but usually not all at once”. I think this is exactly right. We go through cycles in our career and it’s important to recognize that most people can’t be “cranked up” all the time. You’ll burn out.

I’d personally group needs into:

A) Career/professional (job, promotion, pay etc.)

B) Personal/Emotional (family, friends, health etc.)

C) Meaning (spirituality, community, impact beyond yourself etc.)

D) Intellectual (learning, growing, excitement etc.)

This mirrors other writers (I just can’t remember who I’m parroting).  Anyway, the categories are roughly MECE and broadly representative. I visualize these as a “stacked bar” chart representing energy (not the same as time) applied to these 4 categories and the distribution changing over time. (OMG – this sounds so much more new-agey than I mean it to).

So let’s deconstruct me as an example. I have definitely “red-lined it” a few times and dialed it down at others. There have clearly been reasons that I switched roles or jobs that went beyond “career”.

  • After undergrad, I pursued a History PhD. I’d say that was a bit about career, but much more about intellectual. I also married Michele here – so personal was pretty high as well. We had a nice quality of life. I had things I had to find out, but was able to do it without much “sacrifice” (beyond income).
  • MBA was much more about career and “growing up”. All the materials was new, we moved to MN and I worked really long hours to get up to speed. We did move closer to family though, hitting a bit on personal.
  • Consulting was definitely about career and involved very long hours, travel and lots of sacrifices. But I learned al lot as well. I consciously chose the challenge precisely because I thought it would stretch me and expose me to many situations I would never have seen otherwise or at least do it in a lot less time. Mission accomplished.
  • Coming back to the Carlson School to help launch the Consulting Enterprise was more about personal and intellectual. We were starting a family and I wanted more control of my time. Also – for me the meaning category runs through most jobs I’ve had. I enjoy situations that involve teaching, coaching and working with people on their development.
  • The move to 3M was about “the itch” in career. I was still career progression, compensation and corporate challenge oriented. An opportunity to work on interesting things in corporate strategy at a highly regarded global corporation was too much to pass up. I got to work on cool business problems, hire and develop MBA talent and ultimately run a global business. I had more control over my life than in consulting, but was losing it as I had larger responsibilities. In my last year at 3M I hit a personal life “red-line” with the birth of our 3rd child and the deaths of both my parents in a 6 month period. Lots of things became clearer to me in terms of priorities.
  • The move back to Carlson was about turning up the dial on meaning, personal and refocusing the career basket. I probably do better on intellectual too. I’m happy as a clam with where I am right now. I can coach youth soccer, be at home for dinner most night and enjoy diverse work. Also – the challenges in my work environment don’t bug me that much. Frustrations are muted when you like what your doing and can sleep at night.

The point of the walk through time is to show how differently the priorities were over time and how out of whack you can get. I have had extended periods where I was definitely “draining the tank” and others where I was filling my tank” emotionally.

Each of my friends had come to terms with their need for some emphasis of the personal over the career either in terms of time away to refill or an emphasis on intellectual needs. They were also managing to put things into motion to do this, rather than sitting back and complaining.

So are you conscious of how you are spending your energy and is it what you want it to be?

How Many Learning Curves Are You On?

I think many of us struggle with the balance between external challenges (and the professional satisfaction and recognition that comes from them) and personal feelings and needs (like family, private time, relaxation etc.). When you are ambitious it is often hard to achieve balance. Every new problem or work situation is interesting and could be career advancing. Similarly, we tend to prioritize the more “urgent” things and put off things that aren’t screaming for our attention. Things like working out, going to the doctor, taking a long lunch with a loved one.

So think about how much pressure you’re putting on yourself in how many different areas. I describe it sometimes as answering the question, “how many learning curves are you on at once?” If I take a new job in a new industry in a new city – a lot. If I’m moving into a new role in the same group I’ve been in for 2 years – one. Big difference in how much time and energy get expended. So be conscious of this and manage it as best you can. Don’t take on too many changes all at the same time if you aren’t really prepared for it.

Also – some may be imposed on you. My parents passing away certainly wasn’t a choice but it imposed estate planning, long-distance real estate transactions and emotional trauma when I already had a full plate. Still had to manage my P&L and be around for three small kids and Michele. Something had to give. It was sleep and my health.

Never forget to be open to living life as it comes, not in the future. Whatever plan you have will have to bump up against the reality of other’s plans and the universe. The act of planning and thinking some of this through will help you better respond to unplanned opportunities as they come along.

So I encourage you to think about the categories I suggest or come up with your own. Be conscious of what you’re trying to get out of the activities you engage in along the way. You can’t get time back and sometimes put yourself under unreasonable pressure to maximize everything at once.


Go abroad if you can

January 23, 2010

I just returned from a great two week stay Guangzhou, China teaching a graduate seminar and have been reflecting on the time my family and I spent in Shanghai when I worked for 3M, as well as other international experiences I’ve had both in school and during my career. My conclusion (which is probably obvious) is to take any opportunities you can to get outside your personal bubble and go struggle in another culture for awhile. You’ll learn a lot of things, some of them surprising. Any trip is good, extended stays are better.

This recent trip was such a joy in part because I had some China experience and most people on the trip had not been before. I got to re-experience learning a lot of things. It was fun to smile to myself as someone made some personal discovery and to see the students (both American and Chinese) piecing together a more nuanced view of the other culture.

In my undergraduate management class, I often make a point about learning in theory versus learning in practice. For the “in practice” part, there’s nothing like diving in. You can read all you want about another country (and you should if you’re interested), but the experience of how people actually live, work, think etc. is so much richer. And it forces you to confront basic realities that are not always well documented in the literature. It also puts you in situations where you have to be more personally resourceful than you would normally need to be in your life at home.

Here is my unscientific list of reasons why it’s worth doing:

It’s interesting.

You never know what you are going to see or learn on a given day. You may see a famous piece of art at the Louvre (and believe me it’s better to see it live than in a photo) or see unexpected everyday joys. Often it’s the mundane that becomes a joy. Street food in many countries can be a revelation. If you have a curious mind, any trip to a foreign country

It’s hard.

You’ll be challenged to overcome obstacles that are never an issue at home. Figuring out another city’s Metro, ordering dinner in another language, getting around if nothing’s in your language – all of it builds confidence and character. You’ll end up in situations that create more hardships than is common at home. You always figure something out, even if it’s “suboptimal” and you survive. Best, you get a new story.

You’ll learn to think differently.

People don’t see the world in the same way or through the same lens. I’ve come to realize that the base cultural assumptions about the world and what matters are very different around the world. Again, this may seem obvious. But there’s a difference between reading a concept and knowing it in your head and being surrounded by the other culture and experiencing the differences. I am a big believer in making your self a minority somewhere. The biggest cultural learning experiences in my life have all been immersive experiences where I was one of a very few (or the only) white, American males.

I teach about “high and low context cultures”. Well, you’ll understand this difference if you spend time immersed in the one that’s the opposite of yours. You have to adapt. No matter what you do, you will have “Lost in Translation” moments. But you will get better at avoiding them or at least realizing they have happened.

An example from this trip involved basic thought process. The student teams I had were posed a series of case questions by Lenovo (the computer company). The American students took a very analytical, top down logical approach. As one of the American students observed in a wrap up meeting, the team was headed straight down this path in looking at how to evaluate power in OEM/Supplier relationships in the PC/laptop industry when a Chinese colleague suggested maybe the team was missing something important. What followed was a brief description of guanxi and the importance of relationships in supply chains in China and the Pearl River delta. The team learned both an important local business concept (and as an instructor I was pumped that it was “emergent” learning) and a cultural one. The team had been steamrolling ahead and had to slow down to allow broader input from a team member from a “high context” culture. By the way, both approaches are “right”. They collectively reached a much better recommendation to Lenovo than they would have achieved independently. Cool.

The world gets bigger/smaller.

Whichever way you think about it, you will have a connection to and at least basic understanding of events around the world. My wife wasn’t that interested in China before we lived there several years ago. Now we have a running dialogue about every China headline. Whether it be political (information control – Google is the latest) or quality of life (health/food safety – heavy metals in toys is the latest), we both have an opinion based on experience. It has enriched out relationship and our kids view of the world.

You’ll have a clearer perspective on your own country.

I think we learn as much or more about our own culture when we travel to others’. You are forced to confront basic assumptions and compare/contrast. Often we assume where we’re from is “normal” or “how things are”/ These base assumptions rapidly dissolve when you see how differently other culture live.

For Americans visiting Western Europe, there’s the stereo-typical work-life balance debate as well as the role of government in everyday life. Another common realization I see among people is the realization of how wealthy the US is. The average American has a lot of stuff and (by world standards) a very nice home/living situation. I usually come home appreciating what I have even more than I already did. But you also see possible alternate realities.

You’ll be better at what you do.

Anything that broadens your perspective and forces you to think differently enhances your ability to think critically as well as relate to others. In my view, creativity comes from having a broad perspective, being able to see patterns and metaphors and being able to extrapolate or apply them in totally new ways. Travel and immersion is one path to this.

From a pure business perspective, you’ll better understand how radically different markets are. The Chinese consumer is not the same as the American consumer. Value chains look different and are more or less mature etc. My students were amazed by how manual many processes were in China. Even at the Honda plant. All sorts of macro-economic lessons about labor vs. capital became much more tangible when observed.

(Kidding…sort of) Your view of what is edible will expand.

Not too much needs to be said here. Suffice it to say I’ve eaten jellyfish, salamander, duck tongue/feet/colon, parts of a pig we don’t eat at home and all sorts of other delicacies. J And the longer you stay the more you’ll have to concede. A buddy of mine just had to “eat local” because he literally couldn’t find any of his go-to foods.

There are lots of other great reasons, but that’s my list for now.

A few other closing thoughts:

  • Any international/cross-cultural experience is valuable. Do what you can to have them.
  • Be brave and an explorer. I have a former student who was conflicted about high profile consulting career vs. passion for travel and culture. In the end he’s lived in Germany and is studying Mandarin to go teach English in China for a year. What an adventure!
  • The more immersive the better. The longer and more “local” you can get the more you’ll learn.
  • Don’t be afraid of language barriers. I am a lazy/sloppy student of languages. I think I have disappointed every instructor I’ve had. Latin, French, German and worst of all – my poor Chinese tutor (I think I embarrassed my whole country in addition to my ancestors. Sadly, I think she took it as her personal failing.). Despite that I have had great times and no major problems travelling all over the world. As I say above, you figure things out, satisfice and make do.
  • People are warm and friendly in most places. I have never been anywhere that people weren’t curious about Americans and at least generally warm and helpful.
  • You’ll be surprised at the joy you will take in small victories. Just figuring out the lay of the land, or how a bank transaction works in another language become epic accomplishments to be celebrated.
  • Take chances as they come and jump on them. Your life situation changes. Sometimes you have time, sometimes you have money. Use what you have when you have it. Take a semester abroad in college, do a church mission trip to build homes, take a foreign assignment…but do it. I have been fortunate to have work opportunities that helped enable mine and my family’s’ experiences, but there are tons of ways outside of work to get it done.

Figuring Out What You Want – Part 2

October 31, 2009

So how do I begin to figure out what I want?

First, let’s start with the premise that everyone has a different cognitive/intellectual style. Some want a process with clear steps to run through (ie: “5 steps to clarity”). Others don’t want to be given such specific direction, but rather are looking for some high level advice. To each their own. I’ll try to be at least a little helpful regardless of style. 

I think of this process as finding or discovering your calling.  As I mentioned in my earlier post on traps we fall into, we can easily fall into a variety of positions that have little to do with our own dreams and desires.

Let’s assume I’ve determined to begin to really dig into what I want. How do I even break the problem down?

Step 1 – Think (What does that little voice inside your head say?)

The first thing I would suggest is to take some time to actually think. This sounds obvious, but how much do you actually explore your wants? I find that most people I counsel tend to have surface goals that are “clear” to them. But they can’t often articulate a deeper connection. Their explanation of their goal doesn’t resonate for them or to a listener.  

I have a recent example that I think illustrates the point. A super talented student of mine didn’t feel like they were doing well in job interviews. They had been interviewing for what I refer to as “template” jobs. In a business school there are many well defined positions and companies are seeking relatively homogeneous candidates for them. Happily in this case, my student was able to self diagnose their lack of interest in positions.  They really like something that isn’t “conventional” for MBAs from my program. This student is now off on an off-roading expedition to find a better fit.

So take the time to listen to yourself. For me this means quiet, uninterrupted time away from everyone. Often this takes place at a coffee shop with headphones on listening to music. Other times it’s the wandering of my mind while I’m exercising. It’s challenging. Even when exercising, so many of us put on podcasts etc. I am definitely not thinking about deeper issues when I have the PTI podcast on.

So consciously create a useful place for you to think. But what should I think about?

I propose a few high level questions:

1 – What do you like to do?

This question is about what activities or types of things do you like to do. It’s NOT about what you aspire to BE etc. Take a little time and reflect on where you get energy. Do you like puzzles, talking to people, organizing things at church? Don’t edit yourself. If “talking to people” is what you like, then write it down or put it in your mental file. The point is to come up with a list of more than a few things you genuinely like spending time on.

Asked differently, it’s what do you do for free in your personal time?

2 – What are you (demonstrably) good at? (note: these are NOT the same question!)

We all have skills and talents. What are they? Write them down. There are assessments that can help you with both this and determining what you like. I am not a big believer in putting too much weight on them (the are indicative, not deterministic), but there’s nothing wrong with using them to help articulate ideas if you are struggling. Here’s a definition of MBTI which will tell you something about your preferences and here’s a strength’s finder tool from the author of the popular Now, Discover Your Strengths.

After coming to some of your own conclusions, go talk to others you work with and/or who know you well and ask their opinion of what you are good at and write that list down.

If those lists are the same, great. You’re done. In my experience, you’ll find some major gaps. These differences are a source for reflection. “I thought I was great at X and my co- workers didn’t list it. But they did list Y which I hadn’t thought of as a strength.” This can be a major source of insight and open up career avenues you hadn’t perhaps considered.

Many of us are intensely self-critical and so undervalue some subtle strengths we have. Conversely we can overvalue something we are proud of that others don’t appreciate. It’s only an actual/useful strength (in my opinion) if it’s valued by others. Then there’s a “market” for it.

3 – What do you value in life?

Values are different. Is family most important to you? Career progression? Travel? Faith?

Whatever it is, write it down. The list may be long. The longer it is, the more you’ll have to decide about relative priorities at your current life state. For example, I have always valued family but it takes on a different meaning after you have your children. As former boss once told me “you can have it all in life, just not usually at the same time.”

Step 2 – Get feedback (Have others tell you what they hear)

Synthesize what you have thought about and try to organize your thinking enough to have a conversation about it with a small group of friends and mentors. (I discuss the concept of a “personal board of directors” in a prior post.) This type of feedback is invaluable. Others can often see patterns or inconsistencies in your thinking that are invisible to you.

Talk to a diverse group. For example, I get really different feedback from my minister than a former boss who runs a large business. Both are important. Neither is “better” than the other. I wouldn’t want only one of their perspectives.

I’d use this opportunity to reach out to old friends who’ve known you for awhile, as well as a chance to find a few new mentors. Most people will be willing to listen to you over coffee when you have a good set of questions and a sense of what you are exploring.

Definitely avoid seeking out people to whine or complain about things. We all need to vent sometimes, but separate it from your exploration. When exploring, stay positive and focused on where you are trying to go. In this case the destination isn’t necessarily a “job”, but rather clarity and some self-awareness.

One of the hidden benefits of going out to others is that they will have all sorts of ideas that never occurred to you. These can be tremendously valuable when you are in the right mental place to receive the input.

For example, I have a friend who was debating whether to leave their job at a very prestigious firm. As we chatted over coffee, I threw out a few ideas for how I saw them and their skill set and all the people I thought would be fascinated by them.  We also talked about ways to make different personal economic models work.  In the end, that sparked a whole different thought process than the track they were on and they resigned. They have several different business ideas going now and are thrilled with their prospects and freedom.

The point is to let yourself be open to others’ ideas. Some may be perfect, some irrelevant. They are still worth hearing.

Step 3 – Brainstorm list potential options (Develop a concrete list of possibilities)

Having looked inside and looked outside, what seems interesting? Develop a list of potential ideas. I don’t have any more advice than simple to put it down in print and don’t edit yourself. I think getting too specific or critiquing too severely too early takes interesting options off the table unnecessarily.   You may have interesting interconnections between likes and skills that play out in unpredictable ways.

These numbered steps are artificially clear and linear. Recognize that there is a continuous feedback loop in them. I don’t actually think about it this way. For me it’s much more organic. But each of these steps is definitely a part of the process, in whatever order you choose to do them.

Next post will be about taking action on the list of ideas you develop.


Figuring Out What You Want – Part 1

October 4, 2009

I’ve had a lot of conversations lately that end up being about helping people think through what they actually want. I thought I’d hit on a few themes that I think are important and seem to be consistent across these conversations. I’ve written about this in past posts, but my thinking has evolved over time. I want to dig a little deeper.

This will be a multi-part column with the first post focusing on the traps I see people fall into. Part 2 will discuss how to think through your actual goals.

The Trap(s)

There are a number of common traps that I see people fall into.  Almost all of them come down to some form of getting caught up in externally driven expectations.  It’s important to name some of the common traps to help identify WHY you are perhaps off track.

1 – Others’ expectations – Anything that is driven by your perception that other’s goals for you matter more (or even as much) as your own.

Examples: My parents (or family) have certain expectations of me.  I can’t major in (fill in the blank) because it isn’t what I’m supposed to do. They won’t pay for that. What will other people say?

2 – Competitiveness (ie: I have to “win”) – Any motive that is driven by your need to be “the best” if it is in an area you don’t have personal passion around. Competitiveness is perfectly fine if it’s directed purposefully into things of your own choosing.

Examples: I’m going to get that position because it’s the hardest one to get.

3 – Cultural Influences (ie: Keeping up with the Jones’) Decisions driven by your perception of income levels, standard of living or “coolness”.

Examples:  It’s the best paying position I was offered. That career path is what I’m supposed to want (everyone else wants it). If I take that I can afford a new Acura.

4 – Laziness (ie: Path of least resistance) Any decision predicated on the fact that you haven’t worked at generating more interesting options. You’re following the well trodden path because it’s easy, not because you want to.

Examples: I just applied for the positions that were posted. I don’t have time to go meet with people outside the company given my busy schedule. I don’t have time to think about what I want.

5 – Our own illusions – Sometimes we haven’t re-thought our own goals in awhile and are holding on to some path for reasons that are no longer valid.

Examples: It’s always been my dream to do x (except it really isn’t anymore and I won’t let myself off the hook).

Conclusion

I want to make two points in closing out.  First, we all get caught up in other’s expectations to some degree. The point of this post is to get you to think through your motives and make sure there is a big part of the direction you’re headed that is YOU.

Second, any of the above reasons may be a perfectly appropriate motive if it is in line with your own internal compass. It’s great if you and your parents and friends all want you to be a doctor. BUT, if everyone wants you to be something that feels like the wrong track to you then I would start thinking through your direction.

My next post will be about ways to think about what YOUR goals are.


Managing Personal Career Risk

September 6, 2009

Several conversations I’ve had in the last week made me want to capture some thoughts on how I think about risk in your career decisions. So many decisions come down to some version of “what’s the upside” versus “what’s the downside”? I’ll run through a few concepts I try to impart and then use an example or two to illustrate how differently things can play out from the same situation. This post builds on a few ideas I laid out in an earlier one entitled “Career Choices”.

How do you perceive risk?

One lesson from my grad school experience (Yes – I actually learned something!) was a simple psychological one. Our professor challenged us to think about the question “how comfortable are you with different types and amounts of risk?”

He then loosely categorized personalities as:

  • “risk averse” (ie: any loss is painful. Will settle for more certain outcomes)
  • “risk neutral” (ie: ambivalent about risk and thus able to weigh both upside and downside and go with best choice.
  • “risk seeking” (ie: willing to bear tremendous losses in search of big gains.)

Personally, I’m risk neutral. I’ve been willing to take some creative fliers in my career and make big changes, but always felt they were calculated risks with limited downside. Or least bearable downside. I’ll discuss one example later.

So, how comfortable are you with risk in your career and what works for you? A few questions that I ask people (and myself) when faced with significant decisions include:

(Note: Major assumption for this is that you have gone through some thinking about what you want. I have written about this in prior posts and will try not to repeat myself here. )

  • What can you/can’t you live with? Some things may have great aspects, but some of the tradeoffs simply won’t work. Simple examples could be “great job, but pays half of what we need to be viable” or “Perfect position, but I can’t re-locate right now.”
  • How bad is the worst case? If you completely blow it, how bad is it really? There’s a big difference between “I move back into Mom & Dad’s basement for a few months” and “I lose the house and can’t cover the kids’ private school tuition.”
  • How big/exciting is the best case? If everything works out, how cool is the upside? If the upside is your life-long dream, it may trump all other considerations.
  • What’s you’re most likely outcome? In a probabilistic world we all know you can’t count on a specific outcome, but given what you know what do you think is likely?
  • How many of the outcomes are attractive (or at least acceptable)? Again getting at probabilities.

So let me pose two examples that I see quite often. The first is a student coming out of school with several choices available to them and the second is a mid-career professional (in this case me) debating a move.

Soon to be graduate

This candidate has a good job offer at a stable, respected company. They are also pursuing several very competitive and prestigious positions. They have an “exploding offer” from their summer employer, meaning that they will have to decide on the “bird in hand” before they have any input on the prestigious “birds in the bush”.

So what do you do?

Well, it depends. I’ll paint two different scenarios that I think are entirely reasonable based on your risk profile.

Scenario 1: The good offer I have now is OK, but I just can’t see myself doing that for the next 2-3 years. The work is too easy for me and as a result I think I will stagnate.  I’m going to roll the dice and see how the more exciting path works out.

In this case, my push back includes:  “Do you really understand the position?”, “Can you make the position more than it is on paper?” “Are you OK if other alternatives don’t play out as you hope?”

Scenario 2: The good offer I have is OK, but not my dream job. There are other roles I am more excited about, but I can see myself in this job.

Here my pushback is focused on probabilities and comfort level with getting to the end of recruiting and having no offer. I’ll also ask whether they have explored the position and can they make it more than it is.

After I grill people and make them play out the scenarios they have to make a choice. In the last several years I have seen people go both ways and think that they are usually making a good choice for themselves. It comes back to how good or bad will you feel based on where you land on the payout matrix. If you are comfortable taking the risk and the offer in hand makes you depressed then turn it down in good conscience. But if you can’t bear the thought of not having something, then take the offer and focus on being excellent at it and making it more than it is by going beyond the role.

The point is to be thoughtful about your own sense of self and career. Own the decision and then move on and make the most out of whatever path you take. My point to students coming out of school is that they are so early in their careers that almost any choice they make that authentically reflects their values will work out. They have nearly infinite time to adjust.

Mid career

So now you have more mileage and have accumulated commitments; family, house, expectations…

I’ll give an example from my own experience. In a prior life at 3M I had an opportunity to leave a stable, prestigious position that I enjoyed for a different position within 3M that I felt was more entrepreneurial. It also was treated within the HR system as a “project” which meant it wasn’t tied to an existing product P&L. That means if the project doesn’t go well, you’re on the “unassigned list” and on your way out the door unless something unusual happens.

My prospective boss was someone I knew and respected and he’s still a good friend today. I was frank and said I knew the risks, but was really interested in the autonomy and the specific industry so I was committed to making the move even if it didn’t work out in the end. He told me something to the effect of,” don’t worry. If this doesn’t work out we’ll find something for you. “ I told him I appreciated the sentiment, but we both knew full well that neither of us could control the outcome if things didn’t go well.

At the time I had two kids and a mortgage. I weighed my personal goals, career aspirations etc. against the downside risk fairly carefully. I decided that the risk of NOT taking it was larger. You only get so many good pitches to swing at and this seemed like a great one. I felt fairly confident I could find another job in the Minneapolis market in 3-6 months and had a sufficient cash cushion for longer than that.

In the end it went well for me, but had it not I was OK with the downside. And for me personally staying where I was had more risk because I get complacent if I’m not stretching myself. I also got to move to China briefly, travel globally and learn a ton. So the potential payouts were well in my favor and the downside risk seemed acceptable.

As evidence that it can go wrong, a similar venture started at the same time in the same business didn’t go as well and a number of people were “unassigned”. Many found internal positions, but many didn’t. It can go either way. Often for reasons entirely beyond your control.

Closing Thoughts…

Let me offer a few platitudes that are mostly true in my experience.

If you can’t take simple risks, like being daring in a class assignment in school, how will you ever take them when you leave? I would challenge you to be more daring, but we are who we are. It’s OK to be OK with what you have. As a student of mine pointed out just today, not everyone wants to be a leader or run everything. That’s an important realization. Just don’t expect the benefits of running everything if you’ve made choices to settle for less.

A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. Having a tangible opportunity is very valuable. It gives you a platform to perform on and earn invitations to bigger things. No one will know how good you are if no one sees you work. I think people become too enamored with “the hardest thing to get” and prestige. There are lots of ways to achieve your goals, don’t get too locked into only one path. I also think people fail to adequately explore or understand the “cool” things they want assuming the coolness will overcome the difficulties and hardships. As a friend of mine once put it, “The grass is always greener, but all lawns have to be mowed!”

Don’t worry too much about individual choices. Most things will work themselves out in the long run if you are patient and diligent. Much success comes from “mistakes”.

Don’t have regrets. I don’t know many people who regret things they did. But I know A LOT of people who regret things they didn’t do. The Marines call this making “errors of commission” (ie: proactively learning). These are usually good mistakes. You learn. “Errors of omission” are things you didn’t bother to do or take action on. Bad. Passivity leads to victimhood. Also, sometimes the risk is not taking a risk.  This can cut both ways though.

Calibrate the consequences. Losing the house is different than losing 6 months early in your career. Scale of potential mistake is a big deal. I don’t mean to minimize it. This is why its so important to understand your own comfort with risks.

Timing is everything. When can you afford to take risks?

So think through what matters to you and come to terms with your comfort level with career risks.

Related posts:

On making career choices: https://philscareerblog.wordpress.com/2009/06/06/career-choices/

Starting transitions: https://philscareerblog.wordpress.com/2008/10/04/exploring-interests/

It’s your career: https://philscareerblog.wordpress.com/2007/03/19/its-your-career/

Dreams: https://philscareerblog.wordpress.com/2007/03/11/dreams/


Sharks Sink

August 30, 2009

…if they stop swimming. I know this because I have 3 children under the age of seven and have become incredibly knowledgeable about sea creatures, dinosaurs and transformers. It turns out that they don’t have swim bladders like most fish. If they stop moving they sink.

I think many people (including me) are a lot like sharks. Some people are content to be in an entirely stable, relatively unchanging situation. That’s wonderful if you are one of those people. I’m not and I know I have a lot of company. For the rest of us, we’re usually looking for some new challenge. It may be personal (learn the guitar) or it could be professional (achieve a career goal), but whatever it is there tends to be something.

Having stipulated that many of us are seekers and often restless in our desire for something new, I want to hit on a challenge I see a lot of people face as they try to achieve these dreams. Many mistake “dreaming” for getting off the couch and making the dream happen.  If you find yourself thinking “I really wish that…(fill in the blank)”, but can’t think of anything you’ve done in the last few weeks to make that wish more likely then you’re not working at it. You’ve stopped swimming and are sinking.

So swim.

I’ve written in the past about exploring interests and beginning transitions. All that advice still holds. It can be as simple as calling a mentor and asking advice. Don’t have one? Then find one by asking for some introductions to people that seem interesting. Most people will give you a little time if you are polite and flexible about their schedule. 

I also think that if you can’t get yourself going on something you should reflect on whether it is either important or useful for you. I tell students of mine that when you’ve been told what to do to achieve some goal and can’t get yourself to do what you KNOW you need to do, then you’ve answered an important question. You must not have wanted it that badly.

Another important outcome of action is wisdom. I am a HUGE believer in active learning. You can read, meditate, think and do all sorts of wonderful mental activities. Ultimately to progress, however, you have to actually do something. Young people tend to undervalue the importance of grinding. Sticking to a problem and following it through is what yields comprehensive knowledge and wisdom.

I see so many want to do a 4 month project on some business topic and then be an “expert”. Guess what? Until you’ve lived through the consequences, struggled with the client impact and had to adjust course based on more data you haven’t really learned. Or at least not the right lessons.

I love this quote from Dr. Frank Crane, a Presbyterian minister and author of a series of essays early in the 20th Century.

“Out of action, action of any sort, there grows a peculiar, useful, everyday wisdom.  Truth is rarely found by the idle.  Nor is it the result of deep and long study.  It is a sort of essence that is secreted from a concrete deed.”

So if you are fully content with where you are, awesome! (I mean it). I am always admiring of people who have found their place. For the rest of us, if you have things you want to get done then you need to swim. Otherwise you’ll sink, falling short of whatever dreams you may have.