This is a guest post by the daughter of Steve Denning, Stephanie Denning, who writes about leadership issues from a Millennial perspective. The views expressed here are her own.
How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives, wrote Annie Dillard.
Every time I read this quote, I’m struck by its wisdom. And yet, it’s so simple.
The reason its so striking is because we actually have two selves that exist in our mind. The very ordinary person, the person we are everyday, in the present, the one who has a backlog of errands to run and likes to loaf on the couch binge-watching House of Cards. Then there is another version of a much more extraordinary self, one who is obviously destined for world fame, and one who has their entire life under control at all time. For most of us, this extraordinary self lives somewhere in our future.
What Annie Dillard does is poke a hole in this future. She snaps you out of your reverie with a mere sentence.
Most of us would be very distraught to learn that we spent our entire life the way we spend every day. Precisely, because most days are spent pushing off our dreams to a later date. It’s the friction between these two worlds that freaks us out.
While we harbor every hope that we will eventually realize our aspirations, most of us don’t do much about it in the day to day. As you watch your twenties go by, you start to ask yourself what have you actually done in all those years?
Advice books will tell you to work harder than anyone else, to spend your time on deliberate practice, to expose yourself to different viewpoints. These are all valid points. They tell you how to be more productive and how to be efficient. What they don’t tell you is how to be effective.
Time is a limited resource. And the people who make the most out of their 24 hours those who are not only most efficient, but also most effective.
Here are four lessons I learned from a Strategy class I took a few years ago to serve as your guide to making more effective career decisions:
Lesson 1: Seek careers with high variance
Setting strategic priorities begins with the basic question Where is the variance? Your expectation should be that similarity breeds zero profits.
No one ever became successful by being like everybody else. If you want to win big, you have to play big. Much like investing, you have to pick the riskiest bets, to earn the highest reward. This is the essence of variance.
For example, lets take look at a call center agent in a traditionally managed firm..
The call center agent works for a firm that has a strict script to work with, allowing for little deviation. If you are that call center agent, you can spend your whole life trying to be the best call center representative that ever walked this planet, but the way the job is structured, there will never be much difference between you and the worst call center representative. (Compare that to Zappos, where the call center reps are encouraged to exercise creativity as part of the Zappos brand.)
Now, let’s look at movies. A movie director usually has a lot of creative flexibility and can exercise control over his work. The best movies by the best directors will transport you unlike any other experience. And then there are some truly terrible movies (Ashton Kutcher Jobs movie comes to mind here.) The variety is vast.
This is the type of career you want to seek out. Sniff out and follow the variance.
Lesson 2: Make meaningful tradeoffs
Effective strategists understand that it is rarely possible to beat your competitors on every dimension simultaneously.
When we think about career tradeoffs, we often think things like choosing between careers that are cash-rich/time-poor or time-poor/cash-rich.
What we don’t often think about are the tradeoffs we’re making everyday. If you have dreams of starting a company, every hour you spend watching TV instead is an hour not spent on building your company. It’s a tradeoff you’re making, whether consciously or not. You are trading your future aspirations for real-time entertainment. Of course, we are all human, and who doesn’t need to compress with a little House of Cards every once in a while?
To mitigate this human pitfall, we can take a page out of a startup’s playbook: Fail fast and fail often. To translate, remember this: 1) Pivot quickly if you find yourself watching TV too often, 2) Don’t dwell on the hours lost on Downton Abbey and the likes.
Lesson 3: Get comfortable with uncertainty
Good business strategy is typically formulated under conditions of considerable uncertainty and ambiguity. Managers should be alert to opportunities to take advantage of this flexibility.
Our twenties is a time when most of us are cash-poor and time-rich. Our biggest and only real responsibility is our job. We have no kids, nor family obligations. All we have is a big blank slate called Life ahead of us. With that blank slate also comes a lot of uncertainty. We have no idea what shape our story will take. And this ambiguity can be scary.
But opportunity is usually masked in uncertainty.
Because most people shy away from it, it quickly becomes an opportunity for the people who are willing to step into it. Think about the time Warren Buffett invested in Goldman Sachs in 2008, at the very time the financial services industry was widely accepted as radioactive.
You have to channel your inner Warren Buffett.
Lesson 4: You are on a fact-finding mission
The most persuasive analyses are those that are fact-based. Identify fact patterns and then ask, Why do I see these patterns?
What I find interesting is how often we, as humans, ignore patterns. No matter how many times the horrors of working in finance make their rounds in universities, it still tops the charts every year as the most popular career choice.
The reality is we’re not driven by patterns. We are social animals. We are much more likely to follow the crowd than follow the data.
As human’s we are wired for Groupthink. You don’t need to travel far to test this hypothesis yourself. Just look at the stock market. You would think after one stock market crash, it’s all we would need to deter us from ever fueling another one. But data doesn’t drive the stock market, emotion does.
Olivia Munn said about Jon Stewart. He’s somebody that I still go to and I’ll ask him for advice. He has this ability to cut through all bull and just be able to see what the real answer is.
Data is like John Stewart, it’s the only thing that will cut through the bull and tell you the truth.
Conclusion: Veni, vidi, vici
The world is constantly changing and we all want to believe we can make a dent some day, somehow. We want to be able to say, we came, we saw, we conquered.
The only winners are the ones who are able to find the scarcity where they can contribute the most. And following the crowd is not the path to get there.