Tag Archives: reflections

Communication: The hardest thing in the world

TREAT YOUR PARTNER AS YOU WOULD YOUR COWORKERS

Years ago, when I was going through a rough patch at home, my mother told me that “if you want to study Communications, you better learn to communicate well”. I had honestly never considered myself a bad communicator – who does? – but from then on I became hyper sensitive in this regard.

Communication is one of those things that seems SO simple in theory, but is much harder to actually get right.

Over the past few months I’ve learned just how hard it is to do effective organisational communications properly – both on a company-wide scale and also at team level.

For me, it’s all about understanding. Getting the context and background; getting to grips with the why. Knowing where everybody is coming from and thus ensuring their concerns are addressed and their needs met. Otherwise, I reckon your chances of success are a lot lower.

While I’ve never been a manager – and have no desire to – I can understand why someone might feel compelled to micromanage. When you’re frustrated and not getting the results you need, I can see why your instinct might be to crack down.

Honestly, that has always been my MO relationship-wise. And unsurprisingly, it’s not always effective.

Even after almost a decade together, this was my brainwave on Friday morning on the bus to work last week. If I wouldn’t behave that way in a work context, why should I apply it to my partner?

Instead of snapping when I got home, I kept a lid on it. While I knew I would be justified in doing so, that didn’t mean it was the best way to get results. I approached things by asking, “What can I do to help you at this point?”

Magic. Of course, he knew I was doing as much I as I could. I didn’t even need to prompt the obvious next question - what did I need from him? He brought it up of his own accord, voicing all the things I needed to hear and that I had been thinking, without me forcing them on him. We both KNOW what I need, and he knows what he needs to do – and that he hasn’t been giving 100%.

Of course, I wish it hadn’t had to come to that. But no relationship is perfect, and I’m not going to pretend ours is.

The thing is, being in the right isn’t always enough. Going on the offensive will only lead to the other person getting defensive. As Dale Carnegie teaches, start by changing how you behave. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.

So Good They Can’t Ignore You: A manifesto for realists

cal-newport-boromir-passion

We all know that famous Steve Jobs speech from Stanford – the one where everyone seized on the palatable, soundbitable angle: Love your work. Don’t settle. 

As Cal Newport writes in the early pages of his book So Good They Can’t Ignore You, our generation is rather obsessed with ‘following our passions’. But ironically, that’s not at all what Jobs actually did. Had he done that, Newport says, Jobs would probably have wound up as a teacher at the Los Altos Zen Center. Apple was the result of a lucky break, a small-time scheme that took off, albeit one that Jobs no doubt eventually became passionate about later.

What’s actually more important and more telling about that Stanford speech is what Jobs says about joining the dots in retrospect:

“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.”

Having just finished the book, I’ve got a few thoughts to put into words. Bear with me!

The dark side of the ‘passion’ mindset

Chasing passion is often unrealistic and in many cases only leads to disappointment. Newport cites a few studies to back up this argument:

One surveyed a group of students and found the vast majority did not have passions that mapped to work/career paths – most were instead related to leisure or hobbies.

Another found that among employees who all held the same  administrative role with nearly identical duties, there was a fairly even split between those who saw their work as a job vs those who saw it as a career or even a calling – and those most likely to think of it as a calling were the ones with the most years on the job.

And yet another found that job satisfaction numbers have been trending downwards over time. “The more we focused on loving what we do, the less we ended up loving it,” he writes.

Give, and you shall receive?

What I took away from the book is that mastering your craft – which we should all aspire to – is its own kind of reward. Get so good that people can’t ignore you and will pay you accordingly … and job satisfaction follows.

It’s the same philosophy Newport has outlined on his blog; the book is his attempt to flesh this out with living examples and further depth.

It’s a pragmatic approach that no doubt most of us know deep down holds a lot of truth:

Focus on what you can offer the world, instead of what the world can offer you.

Derek Sivers, ostensibly a guy of many passions who’s done a bunch of different things, is one of the ‘masters’ in the book and is quoted thusly: “I have this principle about money that overrides my other life rules: Do what people are willing to pay for.

The law of financial viability, then, is one to bear in mind. I’ll never forget a conversation that went down in our dorm room in Grindelwald, Switzerland. Four of us were sitting around talking: me, T, a ditzy girl from Connecticut and an intense Southern guy who travelled all over the world organising and running races (marathons and ultras). We were discusing how he managed to scrape together a living doing this (he definitely wasn’t doing it for the money) and inevitably, the “passion” word came up.

“So, do what you love and the money will follow?” Ditzy Girl piped up eagerly, obviously waiting for a high five and rah-rah chirpy confirmation.

But rather than immediately jumping to affirm this, Running Guy paused.

“More like, do what you love and figure out a way to make money from it,” he said seriously.

The missing piece of the puzzle

The biggest thing I felt was missing from So Good They Can’t Ignore You was that vital first step. What do you do if you have NO idea what you want to do? (This is the ongoing problem in our household, specifically on T’s side.) How do you get started? Do you just try to get a foot in the door somewhere, assuming the basic elements are bearable – that there’s some room to grow, you don’t actively hate the industry, and you don’t hate the people – and stick with it, beavering away on the quest to achieve mastery and become a highly valuable professional?

One of Newport’s examples, Pardis Sabeti, touches on this: “I think you do need passion to be happy. It’s just that we don’t know what that passion is. If you ask someone, they’ll tell you what they think they’re passionate about, but they probably have it wrong.” From that, Newport concludes that it’s a “fool’s errand” to try figure out in advance what work will lead to that passion. Alas, that point isn’t taken any further.

Yes, he demonstrates that many of his example ‘masters’ took awhile to find their exact direction, but they generally started down the right sort of track early on; it was just a matter of honing in from there over time. It’s not super clear how they found that track to start with. Newport does acknowledge at one point that it’s very hard to start from the bottom in a new field, so if you’re genuinely floundering, maybe the key is simply finding a field that you can tolerably devote yourself to.

Finally, I don’t think that the ‘craftsman’ approach and the ‘passion’ approach are mutually exclusive. They can actually play in quite well together, which I don’t think Newport adequately acknowledges. Passion, or at least interest, was definitely an element for many – though not ALL – of the examples of happy ‘masters’ cited in the book. Take the screenwriter, the archaeologist, the geneticist. One does not complete a master’s/PhD without at least some interest in their subject! In an effort to draw clear lines and take a strong, controversial stance that sells books, passion gets thrown totally under the truck.

In closing: If you read his blog Study Hacks, you probably won’t glean much more meat from the book. He also gives a good overview in this 99U talk.

Cal Newport: “Follow Your Passion” Is Bad Advice from 99U on Vimeo.

Five material things that (would) make me happy

material girl in a material world

As a general rule, I am all about experiences over stuff. Stuff wears out, breaks, gets stolen.

But as reported in the Atlantic this week, some material goods actually CAN make you happy. And I’m definitely not going to argue with that. Here are the material things that make my life better …

My guitar

After nearly two years being guitar-less, I picked one up for $100 secondhand last month. I can’t tell you how much joy it’s bringing me. I’m never going to be much more than a dabbler, but I didn’t realise how much I missed playing.

Unlike my old guitar, it’s not a name brand, though, and for the first time I am finding out first hand what difference that actually makes. (Occasional fret buzz, less than smooth-looking neck/body joint, and prone to paint surface cracks.) But since I’m never going to be a serious muso, it’ll do just fine for now – and possibly for a long time.

Good quality kitchen knife

I can never go back to the days of sawing away at vegetables/meat with the kind of knife that now feels so flimsy I could practically bend it with my bare hands. No siree.

Expensive frypan

Likewise, I love my Circulon pan. Now I can actually make decent looking hotcakes, among other things!

A reliable car

Not something we’ve had the privilege of experiencing much, alas. Working on changing that.

A decent house

I dream of living in a house that’s properly insulated, warm and dry.  And hey, since dreams are free, let’s throw in a bonus heat pump. Still a way off…

Friday Five: Personal finance-flavoured reflections on Breaking Bad

breaking bad
By: Justin Taylor

We’ve just finished all five seasons of Breaking Bad, and I feel profoundly … well, something, I’m just not sure what.

I can’t remember the last time I watched a TV show that had such a strong emotional impact on me.

Breaking Bad was a frustrating watch. It’s outlandish and OTT, but within that framework, its genius is that it is precisely, painfully true to its characters’ natures – and thus, to human nature.

Watching Walt and Skyler’s relationship decay before our eyes was nothing short of heartbreaking.  Much like I only continued watching House of Cards for Claire Underwood once I lost all patience with the main character, I thought Skyler’s storyline was particularly well done (maybe because I often wondered what I would do in her shoes). I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: It takes forever to build up a relationship, but the undoing of one can be surprisingly, brutally swift.

But equally, the disintegration of Walt and Jesse’s dysfunctional relationship – doomed and screwed up from the very beginning – tore me up. Jesse did not deserve to go through what he had to go through. Small comfort: Aaron Paul seems crazy in love and crazy happy IRL (yes, I felt compelled to Google the hell out of him as soon as those final credits rolled).

And here are a few personal finance-related thoughts on the show (small spoilers):

  • We could never live in the US – as T says, “I get hurt too much”.
  • Money laundering seems … surprisingly straightforward. Just in terms of the nuts and bolts of it.
  • Never ride on the belief that you are irreplaceable. I can understand how bruised Walt’s ego was when he realised Jesse was making meth as good as his, but that’s how life goes…
  • Why is it so hard for people to realise that owner or employee, there are tradeoffs either way?! I was literally yelling at the screen when they complained about earning less working under Gus – hello, remember how much money you lost when you were running things yourselves and absorbing all the risk?
  • Life is easier with money – there’s no doubt about it. But getting too greedy is always the point at which it all goes wrong. Check that greed.

Anyone else a Breaking Bad fan?

Why full-time travel is not for me

Why I don't want to quit my job and travel fulltime

“She’s living the dream!”

The person I replaced at my new job – let’s call her B – is doing a similar thing to what we did in 2013. Extended travel, that is (though she outright quit, and their trip is somewhat open ended, so no firm end date). So far it sounds like she’s doing a bang-up job balancing freelance work with travel and working a lot more than I was on the road, so after each update from her, everyone simultaneously sighs wistfully and utters the same phrase.

(“I was living the dream in 2013 too!” I want to squawk.)

But like Amanda of A Dangerous Business, I have done extended travel and confirmed long term travel just doesn’t interest me.

Yeah, I know location independence is trendy. Everyone wants to be a digital nomad – cast off the shackles of a house and steady paycheque and work from some island beach. These are the same people who’ll rail against being a slave to their desk and miserable in the corporate world.

But that has never been me.

We live in climactic paradise (just about)

Location independence usually means spending a fair bit of time in cheaper countries, for obvious reasons. These are often hotter countries.

I am not a fan of heat, and T cannot handle the heat at all. (He struggles during Auckland summers, so that should tell you all you need to know. 20 degrees is HARD for him, and I’m only happy up to the mid/late 20s.) Having grown up in a super mild climate, we are both ill-prepared for real heat. Or real cold, for that matter; he can cope okay when the temperature drops, but I most certainly cannot. UV rays in summer and uninsulated rentals in winter aside, this is about as good as it gets for us.

Six weeks in Asia did us in physically and I can’t imagine spending months on end, in, say, Thailand (Chiang Mai was the expat hotspot for a while, is it still?). As B and her partner make their way around South America, they’re dealing with all sorts of temperature extremes, so while I oooh and ahhh at her blog posts and pictures, I’m inwardly shuddering imagining the conditions and thanking my stars I’m not there.

Yeah … We really can’t handle the jandal on the climate front.

The stress

Not having a home base long term would not sit well with me. It is really freaking draining having to periodically figure out where you go next, where you will stay, figuring out visas, all those logistics. By the end of our trip I was really worn down by that aspect. And I had planned outlines beforehand, so it’s not like I didn’t already have a good guide to work from! Filling in those gaps as we went grew exhausting. I don’t want to have to coordinate such basic life elements regularly.

I don’t want to work for myself

I know others who do, and mostly they struggle (I’m talking about my specific field) particularly in NZ. Realistically, I probably would not be one of the exceptions.

I really like my job – even the meetings! – and the fact I am working on something much bigger than myself. When I think about my career, what I want to do next and how I can best learn and grow, it’s in relation to organisations, not self-employment.The stress and uncertainty of freelancing is not something I would voluntarily choose for myself. And T’s work does not lend itself to nomadism.

I want the traditional stuff

Now that I’ve scratched the itch and ticked off most of the destinations burning a hole in my bucket list, I’m dreaming of a kitchen with a full stove, maybe even a dishwasher, building a pizza oven in the backyard. Dog and kids.

In an ideal world I’d have 2-3 months a year to travel, on top of having all the other things I want (this job, a house in Auckland, etc), but as the saying goes, you can have anything you want – you just can’t have everything you want.

The other day I decided to answer this question on Quora: Which one would you prefer: half a year travel or 6 separate one month-long travels? And while I started out thinking I would prefer another long trip, by the time I finished writing my response I’d realised that with one long trip under my belt, now I would actually rather take the shorter trips – if money was no object.

Routine can be tedious – doing the dishes, supermarket runs, taking the bins out every Thursday.

It can also be incredibly sublime – coming in to the familiar comfort of coworkers’ faces in the morning, cuddling up to your partner at night, chowing down on your favourite treats at the farmer’s market, familiar beaches with free parking that are never too crowded.

For me, a ‘normal’ life is where it’s at. I love to travel, but home is where the heart is.

Career tip: Play to your strengths

One thing that stuck with me from my  recent training session on mentoring high school students was the strengths based approach.

It seems so logical. Focus on your strengths, rather than solely on tackling your weaknesses. Yet I realised I have not been doing this at all.

For example, an ongoing goal of mine for, oh, a couple of years now, has been to brush up on my coding skills. Yet every time I dived in, trying to dig into CSS, or even starting the Javascript module in Codecademy, it was a CHORE. I didn’t enjoy it, and I wasn’t particularly good at it. The other day I managed to break my blog thanks to a stray < in one of the PHP files. I used to think the concept of testing was pretty cool – essentially trying to break things on your site – but actually doing it on my own blog and the site I work on is bloody tedious.

(On that note, there was a great piece on Mother Jones recently about how computational thinking is the new literacy – the ‘learn to code’ movement is great and all, but programmers need to be able to think about WHAT to build, too, in order to meet needs and solve problems. I definitely felt this during my brief brush with Javascript; it was cool to write code that actually DID something active, but realistically when would I use it?)

I don’t have the patience, I don’t have the natural bent, and I don’t have the desire, since there are no obvious benefits. I’m confident in tweaking code – poking around and figuring out what pieces to change in order to get elements doing what I want them to do. Writing code from scratch – not so much. Getting to the stage where I’d be good enough to do it in my professional life is beyond my capability – and it’s probably not going to be hugely helpful to me. Even if I want to go down the full stack marketing route later on, heavier back end coding skills beyond basic HTML/CSS are not going to be as important as commercial nous and/or analytics. If there is talent besides programmers that we are crying out for in today’s work world, it’s digital analysts! (Seriously, we’re hiring right now.)

I feel like I’ve gotten a lot of clarity about my immediate career path lately (this is my third job, and I finally feel like I’ve found my ‘story’ – a cue for me to tweak my LinkedIn profile soon, actually) and the way forward is not to try be something I’m not. My strengths are in content, not design or development. Focusing on that – particularly content strategy, building on my production and management base – is the obvious move.

In the next few weeks I’m going to have to create a development plan as part of annual reviews at work (a totally new process to me), so now I’ve really got to think about what kinds of specific goals to commit to and how I can get there.

Any tips?

5 things I learned while I was 25

Today I turn 26. Here, I present some life truths I learned this past year. They are MY life truths, anyway; some may apply to you, too.

Thou shalt always wear a bra. You never know when you might have the urge to take a dip in a river.

Eyeshadow makes the best eyeliner. That’s for ease of applying, specific colours, and staying power.

Even old dogs can learn new tricks. Who knew my stance on pets would change so dramatically last year? A month hanging out with five dogs on a farm and I’m a goner. Or that I would embrace merino, overcoming my deep-seated aversion to wool. Seriously, merino is the most amazing fabric – despite all the pieces I’ve read (and written my fair share of) about various NZ companies doing amazing things with merino clothing.

I am probably always going to feel somewhat conflicted about my race. I never know quite how to feel when a shop assistant approaches me and greets me in Mandarin, or a random person (security guard/bus driver/passerby) chucks out a ‘Ni hao’, or an Asian person comes up to me on the street and starts asking me something in a language I don’t understand. Also, in a weird way I’ve finally come full circle; knowing Chinese would definitely be a boon at my job – though even if I’d been interested in learning it as a kid I don’t think I would have been very successful.

Aspiring to more is what defines me. I’ve been thinking about this (inspired by Natalie’s post) and decided that the one thing that best sums me up is I’m always looking to the future, thinking about what comes next and how to get there. And to that end, I’m also starting to think beyond my own little selfish bubble. With age, I’ve finally begun to truly understand how people become political. My top passions are still words, travel, and personal finance (and food might sneak in there too) but increasingly, urban issues are becoming a real priority for me. So much so I’m starting to wonder how I might be able to work in that space at some point down the line. I aspire to live in a world class city, and I feel like Auckland has made so many strides lately; we just have to start working on transport and housing. What we need are more sustainable choices – investing in transport beyond new roads, and bringing the standard of properties up to a basic humanitarian level.

Hitting the financial reset button

Comparing myself to others is always going to be something I struggle with. I’m old enough to realise that this is not a part of myself that’s going to change. And the best way to slay that demon is not to try and squash it, but kill it with reason.

Mostly, whenever I fall into the pit of comparison, I wind up feeling pretty depressed. Yes, we are mid 20s with no debt, but also no assets to speak of and little hope of escaping the hamster wheel of grim, mouldy rentals anytime soon. I can’t help but feel like we’re never really going to pick up pace.

When I think about the people our age I know who’ve managed to buy houses, they’ve all had advantages in one form or another. Most have had parental help – parents who paid some or all of their deposit, either using cash or equity in their own houses. Some have lived at home for years rent free. A couple have had cars bought for or given to them. Some have one partner in the relationship who earns significantly more.

For our situation to change, I think we need two things. One, steady and reasonably-paid employment on T’s part – considering his stints of unemployment add up to a couple years, plus a few more months’ worth of reduced and lost income from injuries on top of that, maybe it’s a wonder we aren’t even further behind. As this Billfold piece wisely observed last month, we really need to start accounting for unemployment in the current environment, and adjust financial advice accordingly.

Two, a steady and reliable car. Going the cheap secondhand route has not served us well. After so many years and a handful of different cars, we’re still exactly where we were on the car front as when we first started out – treading water with maintenance and repairs, with nothing really saved for a better and newer vehicle. Debt-averse as I am, I’m increasingly open to the idea of borrowing for a decent vehicle that we can drive into the ground (10 years at least?) so depreciation doesn’t matter. Vehicle financing options here are still kind of unappealing, but the other day I saw what might be the best offer I’d ever seen – something like 2 percent on new cars? – so things may be changing on that front. I’d much rather pay 2 percent on a new car than 10 percent on a used car that could have had any kind of history, and T’s experience from his stint in car sales should help us in the negotiation stage.

But for my own peace of mind, I think I need to scale back on my expectations. In some ways, this year has worked out better than I expected, but in many ways it also worked out much worse. The long term goal remains buying a house and escaping the terrible Auckland rental market for all the reasons I’ve covered on this blog before, like health, stability, pets, kids – but I’m going to refrain from setting a timeline or any hard measures, because I honestly don’t know what the next few years hold for us.

Damned if you do, damned if you don’t

how to balance having a family and career

The more thought I give to having kids, the more I realise we are screwed.

Stay home and miss out on income and retirement contributions (only for a few years sure, but that adds up to a lot).

Keep working and struggle to juggle everything (I find it hard enough to run our lives as DINKs, let me tell you).

If T could increase his income, maybe I could stay home and freelance – I’d earn less, but something is better than nothing .

If I remain the bigger earner, well, I don’t know what he could do on a self-employed basis if he stayed home. If there was an easy answer, his stints of unemployment in our time together wouldn’t have been so bad. Also, I shudder to think what kind of scene I would come home to at nights. Great dinners, no doubt, but probably a filthy house (and grubby, if happy, kids by default).

And what if, as Her Every Cent Counts made me consider, a difficult pregnancy/birth physically affects my ability to work?

I feel totally torn between two trains of thinking: One: I work in an office – the world wouldn’t miss a beat without me – how can that ever compare with raising mini human beings? Two: I really like what I do – even if I’m not saving the world – do I have to feel guilty about that?

Also, I need adult interaction. My tolerance for children is even more limited than for people in general, and needs to be balanced out.

On a slightly different note … My parents were around wayyy too much when I was a kid. They both worked full time when we lived in Kuala Lumpur, but after moving to NZ, they both mostly worked part time or at home. It annoyed the hell out of me back then.  On the other hand, we all know people whose parents were never around. That usually doesn’t end so well either.

Mine were too strict; other parents weren’t strict enough. I am determined to find a balance, but I am well aware I am destined to fail.

Finding your work style: A little self-awareness goes a long way

disc - your work and communication style

One neat thing about my current workplace is that there’s a focus on career development, learning, that kind of thing. On day four I attended a workshop on personal development and training opportunities, and in the second week my team had a group workshop based around figuring out our different communication styles and ways to collaborate better.

I’m an ISFJ. While that’s been interesting and vaguely helpful in relation to my personal life, it really hasn’t shed much light for me professionally. But now I have another lens to look through for that.

For this workshop, we used the DiSC model, which is a workplace-focused assessment. The four pillars are Dominance, Influence, Steadiness and Conscientiousness. Turns out my preferred communication style/work style is of course, a near perfect blend of two.

I’m an SC, which roots me in the steady, and perhaps more importantly, sociable quadrant.

That’s not because I’m a typical outgoing people person (far from it, I’m decidedly not gregarious at all) but because I’m sensitive to other people’s needs, feelings and vibes. I’m diplomatic, often struggle to say no and hate conflict. Quite literally, it gives me the sweats and a stomachache. And while I don’t like to admit it, I do want to be liked. I get little pangs when I observe people at work who effortlessly chat to anyone and everyone, who have friends all through the office, who stop by other people’s desks to chat throughout the day; a little bit of me wishes I could be a warm, universally loved person too.

But like the Force, the C side is strong in me. I’m basically on the cusp of the two quadrants. Work is work. I do mostly enjoy the basic level of required social contact; at times I even appreciate the small talk. But overall when I’m at work I want to get on with the job, and I’m greatly frustrated by incompetence and inefficiency. My working style is just as much about achieving end results as it is about attempting to ensure harmony.

I am happiest behind the scenes. I’ve always thought that my personality is better suited to something totally hidden away in the back room – apparently there are a lot of Cs in finance, strategy, etc. I have some pretty deep seated perfectionist tendencies. However, working in online, I embrace the ‘done is better than perfect’ philosophy and kick ass at getting stuff out the (figurative) door, fast.

Ideally, though? I need time to think about and absorb things – to have reports and presentations and notes emailed to me to study before a meeting – and that’s one of the biggest things I took away from the day. That some of us don’t like being forced to make snap decisions in a meeting, and want to weigh all our options based on as much evidence as we can get.  A quiet comment was made about how another individual with a similar profile to mine tends to go a bit ‘blank’ when initially presented with issues, and whoa did that ring true for me. T feeds this back to me all the time and I’ve become a lot more aware of how cold and expressionless I can come across as.

That said, when it comes to our relationship I’m definitely the default D. When it comes to running the household and our personal affairs my type A comes out. Two equally chilled out people, in my mind, is recipe for domestic disaster, so I compensate.

Are your personal and work personas the same?