Today’s awkward is tomorrow’s cool


Prom 1983. Photo courtesy of Andrew Kitzmiller.

In this disruptive era, it’s as if all of the adults became anxious and depressed teenagers at a high-school dance, after we just got 51% on a big exam, and our crush sent mixed signals just before they moved away. It seems that the adults are just as susceptible to adolescent anxiety as the teenagers are.

Every job in every sector is under intense change, and at the very least we’ll each have to pick up some new tools and apply them to our current job just to break even. But it’s far more likely that your job is the subject of a double-or-nothing bet.

Can people change? Yes, but they have to work at it. There is an interesting article from the British Psychological Society about malleable personalities. The idea of a malleable personality is that we can change who we are based on the circumstances, or in a chosen direction of who we want to be. This idea is newer than most people think.

There has been a shift in psychiatry away from the decades-long theory that our brains are fixed after a certain age. Instead, our brains are subject to neuroplasticity, in which we are always growing and adapting. I was first exposed to the concept a decade ago by Dr. Norman Doidge in his 2007 book The Brain That Changes Itself.

Doidge was one of the earliest researchers in the psychiatry of neuroplasticity. He had a really hard time convincing fixed-mindset people in his own field that people can change. Major shifts in scientific thinking can take decades within the academic discipline. Then the researchers need to convince the general public, which takes even longer.

So, let’s see how quickly we can pick up a new concept and apply it to our lives, starting now.

The newer research about malleable personalities was about helping teenagers cope with anxiety and depression. The researchers created a 30-minute video for teens to watch, explaining some new concepts:

“They heard from older youths saying they believe people can change, and from others saying how they’d used belief in our capacity for change (a “growth mindset”) to cope with problems like embarrassment or rejection. The teenagers learned strategies for applying these principles…” (Emphasis added)

The study showed noticeable improvements, relative to a control group, in depression and anxiety over a nine-month period. The study looked at both the self-reporting by the teens and the opinions of those teens’ parents. The researchers were particularly enthusiastic that this brief video is scale-able, can be offered to all teens universally, and can set up kids for a more successful intervention later in their lives.

Adopting a Growth Mindset in a Changing Workplace and Changing World

Although the study is limited to teens in a clinical sample, the findings may be relevant to the general population’s adaptability to change. Workplaces are in upheaval because of technology and globalization. Every region is gripped by either unemployment or unaffordable housing. Inequality and social media are making people increasingly anxious they haven’t made it. Democracies are vulnerable to demagogues who offer temptations to turn back the clock.

In the workplace, what should we do?

Adopt a growth mindset, change our personalities as we see fit, and give ourselves permission to become two or more different types of people. Scheme to have a backup plan or a side-hustle. Put down the smartphone and start reading. Regard societal upheaval as a topic of exceptional cocktail banter.

Then talk about your feelings, eat a sandwich, and have a nap.

You’ll need the rest. Because tomorrow is another person.

[The above is a modified repost of an article from December 27, 2017]

Magic jelly is more important than IQ for career success

Study. Photo courtesy of Judit Klein.

Is it just me, or have there been an awful lot of career-advice articles in social media about “X is more important than IQ for career success”? The articles are usually about a specific attribute that truly moves people forward to accomplish life goals. But on closer examination, general intelligence can be brought to bear on all of these “more important” attributes such that IQ is the true cornerstone.

Leadernomics.com has a great infographic about eight things that are more important than IQ for career success. Those items are:

  1. Self-Regulation. Take time to think before you act, and manage your emotions prior to reacting to negative situations.
  2. Growth Mindset. Carol S. Dweck makes the case (which I summarize here) that excellence is not a set point but rather an act of becoming. Welcome challenges and setbacks as learning experiences and opportunities to improve and grow.
  3. Resilience. When you fail, don’t let it get to you — persevere, try something different, and keep trying. This is the “grit” made famous by Angela Duckworth in her TED Talk and book.
  4. Passion. Hidden in the research about the 10,000-hour rule to becoming exceptional is a graveyard of broken hearts. Many people lost the passion for their true calling after a few hundred hours of experience. A mean coach, strict parents, performance-contingent rewards, and a long list of deal-breakers can suck the life out of anyone’s potential. It’s the passion that nets the hours, and the hours cause the talent. Guard your passions like a precious gem.
  5. Empathy. The ability to feel the feelings of your clients and colleagues allows you to work with them on things that are important to them. Empathy develops that closeness and warmth at the root of great relationships. Empathy is a key ingredient in Brené Brown’s research on vulnerability and shame. It’s critical to feel the feelings of others in order to help them with those things that bother them the most.
  6. Conscientiousness. These people are disciplined, compliant, and plan ahead. Salt-of-the-earth people get things done, allowing others to rely on them, building trust and teamwork. In my experience, you can be conscientious but not be recognized, so you may need some other behavior to turn this quality into gold, such as boasting or billing.
  7. Openness to Experience. More to the point, curiosity. Curious people are four times as likely to succeed in class. Curiosity is a mixture of several other attributes above, but does deserve its own word. It’s easiest to understand why curiosity is important when you look at it in reverse and imagine those who are uncurious. Admit it, you want them to fail.
  8. Social Skills. This is a sincere other-orientation where you can, according to the leadernomics.com article, “network, function in a team and bring people together…” At this point we’re getting into a magic-jelly attribute that’s really just dozens of mini-skills pulled together by experience.

You may recognize self-regulation, empathy, and social skills as the key elements of emotional intelligence, as described by Dan Goleman in his book by the same name. Goleman makes the case that our wellbeing and social advancement is strongly influenced by an emotionally-awakened ability to pull together meaningful relationships and interactions. The evidence is strong that mutual understanding at an emotional level is critical to having a good life. Relationships are important, and you cannot finesse relationships with logic alone.

The evidence is strong that mutual understanding at an emotional level is critical to having a good life. Relationships are important, and you cannot finesse relationships with logic alone.

Can Low IQ Undermine Other Types of Intelligence?

But sometimes IQ is still critical to success. A few years ago, I watched an event at the Special Olympics which my workplace was hosting. I was doing Olympic lifts as part of my fitness routine, and I was curious to see what the activity looked like for those with an intellectual disability. Lifting can be a brain game. Any lack of focus and concentration can cause failure. You need to calculate the correct weight, approach the bar as if it’s the only thing in your world, and put all of your focus into one thing: lift this weight. If your thoughts under-perform,they can cause the body to under-perform.

One contestant at the Special Olympics was a large fellow who was the previous year’s champion. He made two really impressive lifts at a high weight, the last of which was obviously near his maximum (the beet-red face is the give-away). He only needed to make one last lift that was equal to his previous one, and he would become champion once again. But instead, he asked to have an additional twenty pounds put onto the bar. He pulled and pulled but the bar wouldn’t budge. He didn’t place because he had not made three successful lifts.

I thought to myself, did his intellectual disability affect his athletic performance? Was it entirely up to him to choose to add twenty pounds? What was his emotional state when he made this decision? Was he over-confident? Did he perceive that today was going to be his best day ever? I also wonder if he learned from this experience, and whether he would persevere and came back with a vengeance next year.

Are There MultipleTypes of Intelligence?

Watching this athlete attempt his third lift was intriguing to me because of the disparities in his talents. There’s a debate about whether there is more than one type of intelligence. Howard Gardner is the author of several articles and a book on the topic. Gardner proposes the theory that there are in eight different intellectual ‘modalities.’ The first three items – visual-spatial, linguistic-verbal, and logical mathematical – resemble those abilities tested in IQ tests. Two others – interpersonal and intrapersonal – once again match the emotional intelligence indicators described by Goleman. Then there are the two modalities where it’s possible to become a world-famous star in sport or music – bodily-kinesthetic and musical-rhythmic.

But Gardner’s theory starts to falls apart when he gets to naturalistic intelligence because he names a specific subject-area, which is biology. Why biology but not other disciplines? This puzzle brings into question whether a specific interest in nature or music or math are just the canvas onto which intelligence is applied. Indeed, Gardner starts with seven intelligences, but then adds existential, moral, and naturalistic intelligences. At this point, we’re on a slippery slope to the full list in the Clifton strengths assessment, which itself has stronger empirical basis and a broad public appeal.

One Intelligence toRule Them All

Can someone with a really strong IQ just become good at the non-logic intelligences? There is some evidence that this is the case, when we look into something called the “g factor.” The g factor is the notion that there is a core type of general intelligence (g = general). According to the evidence, this intelligence passes-through into the sub-variants of other types of intelligence. When studies extract this g factor from several batteries of tests, the varied g-factor measurements are extremely similar regardless of the type of test. And, there’s always a positive relationship between someone’s g factor and their measures of other intelligence types, ranging from 10-90% with an average “g load” of 60%.

But there’s heated debate about whether there is an underlying single type of intelligence, probably because of a touchy social critique. The g factor implies that people have a fate and are destined for a set path in life, like Oedipus or Macbeth. This is disturbing, it feels unfair, and if it were true, a lot of people would wish it weren’t so. By contrast, the multiple intelligences theory brings to mind the legend of stone soup in which a visitor comes to town and places a stone in a giant pot. He asks for help, and everyone in the village throws in their own special ingredient, a metaphor for diversity in talents. The village boils up the soup, it’s delicious, and everyone gets to eat. Society rocks!

I love the stone soup story, but to clarify, it’s about exceptional sociology. A clever visitor manages to get a great meal for free. The visitor is a leader, has a collective orientation, and he is strong on Gardner’s interpersonal intelligence. However, we could also interpret that the visitor also has a strong g-score. On one hand, we don’t want geniuses to hoard all the money and power, but on the other hand, we want to harness genius such that it contributes to collective wellbeing. I think the research about intelligence and the way we discuss it in the public sphere is strongly influenced by these kinds of social and political forces. Notwithstanding the evidence, we’re entitled to influence these social forces as citizens.

We don’t need to reject the notion that brain power drives positive results. We need the context, the wisdom, and the agency to organize ourselves such that society moves forward, together. And we’re going to need that big guy to get the rock into the pot.

There is more to your soul than your career

Photo courtesy of Ken Banks from kiwanja.net

Does work give meaning to your life? I sure hope not. Careers, on close examination, are an extremely useless vehicle for delivering a holistic life purpose. If you’re extremely busy you may not have had time to consider this. But it’s healthy to take the idea for a test drive.

Your Career Does Not Define You

This summer I was at the staff BBQ, to which everyone’s family were invited. The husband of one of the senior leaders, whom I had not yet met, was free for conversation. Here’s the hard part. In my late twenties, I read Miss Manners to learn those mainstream social skills not instilled in me by my hippie parents. One obscure item of tact is that it’s not always proper to ask what someone does for a living. People can choose to divulge, but it’s sometimes rude to demand that a first impression is built around one’s current career success. There is more to a person than their career, and demanding their career identity is limiting and possibly demeaning.

So, I asked this man how long he had known his wife. They met in their late teens in the same small town they had both grown up in, and they had been together ever since. Being who I am, I regurgitated the statistic that couples who meet before age 23 have a much higher divorce rate than everyone else. They tend to evolve into their true selves as they mature, usually in contradictory ways. Why were they doing so well?

“We each grew, but together. We made decisions as a couple about how we wanted to change, and we followed that path together, as a team.”

What would it mean if we could simply decide who to become? There are a lot of constraints put upon us by society, telling us that we must be this or that. What if instead of imposing constraints on each other we supported one another’s individual hopes and dreams? If this behaviour were normal, I can’t decide if I would think more about myself or what I could do for others. Is true success mostly about our conversations with friends and family and where we are going as a team?

What is Careerism?

Careers, by contrast, might not be all they’re chalked up to be. According to an article in Quartz by Andrew Taggart from July 2018 entitled The Case Against Careers:

“A career is a first-person work-centric story of progress about an individual’s life course, a story that confers a sense of purpose and unity upon specific work experiences (internships, jobs, gigs…) as well as a staid identity (journalist, firefighter, accountant…) …The aim of the career, and therefore of the careerist’s life, is work success.” [Emphasis added]

This is a great definition of career because it spells out some presumptions that are worthy of dispute. For example, if you had a good self-definition would it be work-centric? If your whole life is your spouse and your spouse dies, you lose your identity. If your whole life is fitness and you become disabled, you lose your identity. And if your whole life is your career and it gets derailed, you can’t look to your healthy body and your robust personal relationship to carry you through hard times.

In order to be resilient in a world of constant change, you need several identities in place before adverse events occur. That way you can be four-fifths “complete” when hit by hard times. And real people are weird; they have sincere internal contradictions that make them uncomfortable at times. There are mumsy types sneaking off to roller-derby, health enthusiasts who love their chips, and happily married people who put a little too much effort into looking good at the office. But being weird also turns out to be universal, so it’s fine to get used to this kind of thing. More than anything, we need to value complex thought as the rest of the world becomes contradictory in its own right.

Developing a clear identity gives you resilience that is a solid base from which to be brave, take risks, and shrug off threats from toxic people and a world gone mad. By contrast, a singular focus on the careerist mindset is a path to personal ruin that exposes you to extremely reliable disappointments.

Your career tells your first-person story. But increasingly our workplace effectiveness is determined by how well we dovetail with our superiors, subordinates, and our peers, both inside and outside the organization. Do we help each other, have each other’s back, and speak to one another with a respectful and considerate voice? Your surrounding network is so influential, your existence at work cannot truthfully be a first-person story.

There’s a great TED Talk by Margaret Heffernan who cites research by a scientist named William Muir. Muir ran an experiment that attempted to breed chickens that were top performing in producing eggs. The surprise outcome was that after several generations these “super-chickens” had almost pecked each other to death. Super-chickens as individual performers become excellent by hoarding the best resources and belittling others.

Coops built around super-chickens under-performed the control group of chickens made of equals. Heffernan makes the case that real workplace productivity is increasingly about teams working together with a sense of helping and collaboration. By contrast, the egos and demands of star-performers can cause teams to fail. Back to the definition of career, the first-person story is less important than the story of the team. Careerism is sounding, increasingly, like it’s not so clever.

Why Do Careers Fail to Deliver Ultimate Fulfillment?

Taggart asserts that before the ascent of careerism, humanity was built around higher visions advanced by organized religion. When humanity mostly abandoned religion, this sense of purpose was thrown out as well. Taggart asserts that there is a “vital existential anxiety” in the human experience that cannot be remedied or brought to peace through our career journey.

In order to achieve life meaning, we must seek transcendent experiences, Taggart suggests. The main feature of spirituality (an individual experience) and religion (a group experience) is that they offer transcendence, taking us beyond the day-to-day. But, by its very nature, work is fundamentally mundane. As meager compensation for abandoning transcendent spiritual quests we are given tasks that give us a sense of meaningless work.

In the typical workplace, purpose is undefined and often kept a secret. If purpose gives us our place in the cosmos, organized religion, at least, puts in a good effort. However, work imposes upon us a secret cult of stuffy clothing, buzzwords, and parlour games where we mimic the views of the highest-paid person who has a relative absence of baby-face. If you were not religious, and you had a good plan to replace God, surely you would turn to something lofty and impressive such as science or art or philosophy. To turn up at your workplace on a Sunday when the air is turned off and your friends and family are absent has got to be the Worst. Religion. Ever.

Don’t Scare the Children

Taggart is most bothered that we always ask children what they want to do for a job when they grow up:

“Instead, we should ask our children how, in a fundamental sense, they wish to live; what and for whom they wish to care; … what, or for whom, they’d be willing to die; in what ways they can be open to what life brings them; and how they can, as they lay dying, be so sated with life that they close their eyes free of regrets and resentments and at peace with all that is. …To kill the career—call it the Death of the Career–is to begin to wake up to life.”

It’s been a good thought exercise, but I’ll have to draw the line right there. I won’t be starting any death-talk with children at the staff BBQ. You don’t need to read Miss Manners to know it’s a bad idea to make children cry. And there, but for the grace of God, go I.

Life hacks will not save your soul

Texting, by Alexandra Zakharova

Do you feel put-upon to stay productive at work, and at home, and in friendships? It’s exhausting when you think about it. Everywhere you look there is a new tip to make your relationships super authentic, to make your career deeply meaningful, and for your morning routine to run like a seamless assembly line. If you feel boxed-in by unreasonable, self-imposed expectations, you are not alone. That is because we are universally immersed in values that are the rational extension of the passing whims of merchants.

Bourgeois Values and the Bourgeois Era

In an article in Quartz entitled Life hacks are part of a 200-year-old movement to destroy your humanity, Andrew Taggart puts our current middle-class lives into an historical context. There is constant speculation that we’re entering a different historic era. If we look at how we entered our current era we might learn how we will move onward.

Taggart cites economic historian Diedre McCloskey who describes the present as the “Bourgeois Era.” The Bourgeois Era was created 200 years ago when the industrial revolution took hold, merchants bloomed, and those merchants promptly overpowered aristocrats and religious leaders. Your ancestors were controlled by lord and cleric, but you have broken these chains and are now controlled by your boss, your clients, and advertisers. There has been progression, but you are not entirely free.

You are not free because your thinking is enveloped by prevailing values. I would note this is something that typically happens under hegemony: not only does the economic and political dominance of the elite control your life, but the values of the elite permeate the thinking of those under their sway. Long ago, aristocrats cherished the values of honour, leisureliness, and pride. Christian peasants valued charity and reverence. These are rare values today, to the point where you almost have to look them up.

When the Bourgeois Era came along, it came with “the bourgeois virtues of prudence, temperance, trustworthiness, and pride in fair dealing.” We now look up to visionary entrepreneurs who embody these values, abandoning wars of aristocratic honour, or the self-flagellation required to seek salvation. And the new(ish) bourgeois values bring their own problems, creating diseases of the soul and existential heartbreak. When you email that final-final draft at 3 p.m. on a Friday and imagine the weekend ahead of you, is your life truly more complete than those who have confessed their sins?

What Happens to Old Values When We Make Progress?

Taggart does not entirely suggest that we go back to the older values. The way I think of it is, there are places on this earth where the biggest problem is inadequate plumbing. If those regions achieved adequate plumbing that would be great, however, it would be foolish for them to continue to obsess about plumbing as their highest goal. You’re supposed to move on. Perhaps their next goals would be fair elections, clear title on land ownership, and universal K-12 education. And after that, their goals might be togetherness of communities, greater self-expression, and nicer clothing. But when the community comes together you don’t abandon plumbing. Rather, it fades into the background as important-yet-forgettable.

As such, we may hold onto a variant of aristocratic honour when we defend our prestige in the workplace. And we may still be advancing the Christian-peasant virtue of charity when we support social change movements by contributing time, money, or simply our voices. But we remain completely shackled to the bourgeois values of temperance and prudence when we count our calories, declutter our wardrobes, and try to get a better telco package. You cannot go home from work and adopt the aristocratic value of leisureliness because temperance and prudence have penetrated our homes. Look busy!

I don’t think the solution is to seek the opposite of bourgeois dominance. I get triggered by the word bourgeois because of my past exposure to the labour movement. I’ll always be in remission from polarizing Marxist patter. I always get that I-know-where-this-is-going feeling. If I allow tomorrow’s next Lenin to keep talking I’m going to have to eat rice and beans at a banquet hall where I am sucked into a bottomless pit of volunteerism and bad taste. But it’s not just the left who can lead you astray. You also can’t let clerics and aristocrats join in on the bourgeois-bashing, as they don’t even want you to have plumbing.

The mainstream has done an exceptional job at offering meaningful careers to those who are intelligent and hard-working. There used to be a crowd of people who were alienated from the mainstream, some of whom were intelligent leadership-types who could create a meaningful rebel resistance. But now that corporations are adopting corporate social responsibility, advancing transformational leadership styles, and increasingly promoting a diverse population into the professions and leadership, there’s not as much appeal to heckling from the margins. Who is going to lead the resistance? Not always the best people. Fifteen per cent of the population has a personality disorder, but in political crowds (on either side of the fence) it seems more like one-half. The negation of the current dominant class might not be a viable path forward.

What Values Will Take Us Forward?

If I were to name the cherished values of our next era, I would go with humility, introspection, and empathy. The reason why is that the data keeps revealing cognitive fallacies and implicit bias that make it clear that our brains only have the power of a 40-watt light bulb. In order to do well, we have to get over ourselves and ask us why we think the things we think. And this is done best by looking at the evidence and working with a team. We need to figure ourselves out while we help others do the same. This task is impossible if you think you have everything figured out, so humility is your first task.

As artificial intelligence and robots take over the productivity race, those who pull ahead will do something human that artificial intelligence just can’t do. This kind of holistic thinking is deeply incompatible with the conformity and profit-maximizing focus of the promotable class of agreeable bourgeois leaders. Instead, the new leaders are those who look inside of themselves, build their story, and enmesh their own story with those of others. It’s not something that can be written by a public relations professional or a ghostwriter. You must become yourself, make it real, and show up as authentically human.

There’s no eye contact with any app anywhere that will give you a sense that your humanity resonates with your colleagues, friends, and family. Rather, you start with that which is human and tell the market and the technology what is required.

So when you get home on Friday and look at those dishes that need loading, try going deep on why you care. Are you allowed to do nothing? Is the person who loads the dishwasher committing a benevolent act? Or are you, in all honesty, trying to keep everything running smoothly? If you meditate long enough, you might just decide that it’s really about the ick factor. Then you’re in the future.

How to repurpose leftover turkey and leftover code

Turkey
Turkey.  Photo courtesy of  Jeremy Keith.

As Christmas winds to an end, several households are struggling with a conundrum. What should you do with the leftover turkey?  There are downsides to having this carcass. It hogs fridge space, you will be eating turkey for days, and some people just hate leftovers. I know people who are tempted to throw the whole thing in the garbage. But don’t. Leftover turkey is a great opportunity to whip up some butter turkey or turkey noodle casserole.

When there’s nothing left but bones, it’s time to make turkey stock. Boiling down a turkey carcass into stock is one of the great wonders of household management. It’s so well-seasoned you don’t need to add any vegetables.  While the stock simmers, filling your home with great smells, you can accomplish something else, in a season when there’s some time to catch up with friends or wrap up loose ends.

With workforce analytics this kind of thing happens all the time.  Once you get on top of a major headcount puzzle, you will have spreadsheets and a few pages of code that are available for more than one purpose.  Like turkey leftovers, it’s worthwhile to be bold and repurpose them.

My favorite experience was when I built an entire hierarchy of jobs in order to identify when people had been promoted.  In large organizations it can be ambiguous which job movements are upward or downward.  Often, promotions are not categorized as promotions, especially if people change departments, leave and come back, or get a job temporarily prior to being made permanent.

To get past this obstacle we created a simple reference table that identified where someone was in a hierarchical career ladder, assigning a two-digit code to 1,200 job descriptions.  It was hard and tedious work that was entirely for the benefit of the back-engine of our promotions model.  But we eventually got the promotions model to work at a level of high accuracy, after which the client was able to use the information to influence high-level decisions.  That was the full turkey dinner.

Shortly after we finished this promotions model we got new demands for work which took advantage of the back-engine.  Our happiest client was the one who just needed the list of rank indicators for the 1,200 job descriptions.  They needed to send emails to a limited number of high-ranking people, so those people knew about breaking events before their subordinates and would know what to say.  With our organizational complexity and some turnover at the top, it was hard to identify who was senior.  What our client needed was a rules-based way of identifying who should get their emails.  Looking at our rank tables, they were able to choose a small number of rank categories and let the code do the work for them.  In the process they uncovered that one senior executive had been previously overlooked.  Now they were able to get the information out to the right people.

This client got the analytics equivalent of turkey soup.  They just needed the bones from inside the promotions query to be boiled down to create a new, skillfully-repurposed product that met their needs.

Do you have the opportunity to repurpose your own big wins?  That time you got on top of a major health concern, did you also develop healthy habits that improved other parts of your life?  If you overcame a difficult business relationship, did you also learn what your triggers are, and how to regulate them in future?  At the end of a big project, did you go for drinks afterward and end up with a few new friends?

Sometimes it seems like you’re just working hard to make other people happy.  But if you accomplished nothing in the last year except healthy habits, self-awareness, and more meaningful relationships, would you even recognize that this counts as success?

So put on your wool socks, turn the TV to your guilty pleasures, and curl up with that bowl of turkey soup.  It should feel good.  So take a deep breath and enjoy it.

[This is a re-post, with edits, of an article from October 10, 2017]

Stop trusting people who agree with you

Réception, dîner et dansede la présidente commandités par Fisher Scientific Education Dining Services [Musée de la civilisation]
Photo courtesy of CAUBO 2016.

Do you really need to network to get ahead? You might wish you didn’t have to. Sure, the appetizers at those networking events are tasty. But do you really need to spend more time talking with strangers you would never invite for dinner? Yes you do, but mostly you need to imagine a life where you can learn something from anyone.

An interesting debate emerged in August 2017 between two big names, and their arguments deserve a closer look. Adam Grant, who has an exceptional TED podcast called Work Life, proposed that networking wasn’t that big of a deal in achieving career success. Jeffrey Pfeffer, one of my favorite counter-intuitive business authors, respectfully disagreed.

Grant provided several examples of people who worked hard at developing an exceptional talent or creating something novel, who were only then picked up by an established social network. He noted that there are many cases of people trying and failing to use networking to advance their careers in the absence of underlying talent. Those who develop a meaningful contribution are more likely to get noticed. The subsequent networking is a consequence, not a driver.

Pfeffer did a good job of acknowledging that being excellent in more ways than one is important. However, he asserted that there is a major distinction between talented people who are not networked, and those who got networked and achieved career breakthrough afterwards.

Pfeffer and Grant agree on a core point, which is that people should aspire to become intrinsically excellent and then extend that excellence with robust networking. They are just debating what-causes-what. I think that everything causes everything else, and that it’s often ridiculous and pointless to find one thing that’s driving everything. For example, I propose that all of those successfully networked people got a great night’s sleep, and their sleep is the main driver of both the intrinsic talent and the excellent networking. That’s just a little example of how easy it is to choose a single driver of excellence. You can always take it back one step and find one thing that is even more important.

In terms of applying the research to our daily efforts, the key issue is to understand network diversity. As a sociological puzzle, it is strange and disturbing how we’re attracted to people who are just like us, how we expect our friends to like each other, and how we get sucked into tiny little cliques of like-minded people. All of these cliques are confirmation-bias echo-chambers filled with ideas and opportunities that only go in circles.

In an article at Entrepreneur magazine, networking expert Ivan Misner emphasizes the importance of diversity in networking efforts. He describes the experience of his colleague Patti Salvucci who arrived early at a networking event in Boston. She struck up a conversation with an older gentleman who was laying out coffee mugs for the meeting. She noticed his great voice and asked about it. It turns out that he used to be a commentator on CNN and had interviewed several public figures including JFK, Nelson Mandela, and Martin Luther King, Jr. He had downshifted and moved to be closer to his daughter. Later at the event, there was another person who confessed that he wanted to start a radio talk show but had no idea where to start. Salvucci recommended he talk to the gentleman who was helping with the coffee, explaining the back-story. Nice connection!

That story shows new opportunities, but sometimes it’s about new opinions. When I was coming around to the realization that I was an atheist, I had a conversation with a colleague about my expectation that everything can be figured out. She had her own spiritual values, and she pressed me on whether it’s possible to have a deep admiration for the unknown. Pshaw, I said, people who lead society shouldn’t be obliging us to believe in anything that lacks evidence. That was my impulse. But her comment grew on me.

A year later I came back to her and confessed that the reason I always pursue evidence is that I am deeply passionate about the unknown. She was happy to leave-be the unknown, and to experience the joy of being surprised by the unexpected. I wanted to overcome the unknown as an obstacle, as an adventure in the pursuit of research and wisdom. We had two variants of a similar opinion. I had to fess-up that she had a great point, and that she had shaken me from a smugness.

Maintaining your cliques is what keeps you in your place. By contrast, the disruption of the established order is largely achieved by finding unusual connections with people who make you uncomfortable in some way. In order to make new connections in untapped areas, you must be brave and choose discomfort. And while maintaining discomfort during civil conversations, you must be curious about the opinions of those you at first think have it wrong. This important work is impossible to do if you lack humility. If you think you have figured everything out, you need to suspend your disbelief, and consider that others can change you for the better. Ask others where they are coming from, get sincere and uncomfortable, and play with the idea of changing your perspective. It’s hard work, but it’s usually the only way to get away from the tried-and-true.

Sincere networking isn’t one thing. It’s several things; attempting courage, enduring discomfort, developing curiosity, feeling a sense of humility, and changing perspectives. If you do all of that in one day, you’ll sleep heavily that night. And when you wake up in the morning, you might realize that you can accomplish anything.

[This is a repost of an article from May 7, 2018]