Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Your Professional Decline & Your Happiness

Source:  Wikipedia
Arthur Brooks has written a thought-provoking article for The Atlantic titled, "Your Professional Decline Is Coming (Much) Sooner Than You Think."  Brooks reviews the literature regarding the age at which professional productivity peaks in various fields, as well as some of the research on personal happiness.  He closes with some thoughts about how he will approach his work and life moving forward (Brooks has just stepped down as President of the American Enterprise Institute and will be joining the Harvard faculty this summer).   Here's an excerpt from Brooks' terrific essay:

What’s the difference between (Johann Sebastian) Bach and (Charles) Darwin? Both were preternaturally gifted and widely known early in life. Both attained permanent fame posthumously. Where they differed was in their approach to the midlife fade. When Darwin fell behind as an innovator, he became despondent and depressed; his life ended in sad inactivity. When Bach fell behind, he reinvented himself as a master instructor. He died beloved, fulfilled, and—though less famous than he once had been—respected.

The lesson for you and me, especially after 50: Be Johann Sebastian Bach, not Charles Darwin.  How does one do that?  A potential answer lies in the work of the British psychologist Raymond Cattell, who in the early 1940s introduced the concepts of fluid and crystallized intelligence. Cattell defined fluid intelligence as the ability to reason, analyze, and solve novel problems—what we commonly think of as raw intellectual horsepower. Innovators typically have an abundance of fluid intelligence. It is highest relatively early in adulthood and diminishes starting in one’s 30s and 40s. This is why tech entrepreneurs, for instance, do so well so early, and why older people have a much harder time innovating.

Crystallized intelligence, in contrast, is the ability to use knowledge gained in the past. Think of it as possessing a vast library and understanding how to use it. It is the essence of wisdom. Because crystallized intelligence relies on an accumulating stock of knowledge, it tends to increase through one’s 40s, and does not diminish until very late in life.

Careers that rely primarily on fluid intelligence tend to peak early, while those that use more crystallized intelligence peak later. For example, Dean Keith Simonton has found that poets—highly fluid in their creativity—tend to have produced half their lifetime creative output by age 40 or so. Historians—who rely on a crystallized stock of knowledge—don’t reach this milestone until about 60.

Here’s a practical lesson we can extract from all this: No matter what mix of intelligence your field requires, you can always endeavor to weight your career away from innovation and toward the strengths that persist, or even increase, later in life.  Like what? As Bach demonstrated, teaching is an ability that decays very late in life, a principal exception to the general pattern of professional decline over time.

Later in the article, Brooks (now in his early 50s) articulates four commitments he has made to himself as he enters the next stage of his career and life.  

1.  Jump:  Be ready to leave something you love and shift to something new that fits your stage of life more appropriately.  

2. Serve:  Brooks notes that, "An effort to serve others can play to our strengths as we age."

3.  Worship:  Brooks notes the importance of his spiritual life and how it need not be detached from his work life.  He intends to focus on his spiritual life even more moving forward.  

4.  Connect:  Brooks explains that healthy relationships are key to happiness in life, and that one can make time for those relationships without necessarily sacrificing achievement altogether.  

I have not done justice to the fascinating article in this short blog post.  I hope that I have intrigued you, though, and that you will read the entire essay.   

Monday, June 17, 2019

Giving Feedback: Stay on Your Side of the Net

Adam Bryant, managing director of Merryck & Co, has a terrific article for the New York Times (for which he used to write regularly), about how to build a successful team. He based this essay on over 500 interviews he conducted with senior executives over many years while writing the Corner Office column for the newspaper.   One piece of advice that Bryant offers is to "stay on your side of the net" when giving a team member constructive feedback on his or her performance.  Here's an excerpt:

A big part of holding people accountable for their work is a willingness to have frank discussions about problems and misunderstandings that inevitably arise among colleagues. But the fact is that most managers go out of their way to avoid these “adult conversations.” It’s understandable. They can be unpleasant, and most people would rather deliver good news instead of bad. Also, you never quite know how somebody’s going to react to feedback. That is why problems are often swept under the rug, and maybe dealt with months later in an annual performance review.

One of the smartest tips for having such conversations is to make sure you “don’t go over the net.”  It means you should never make statements that include assumptions about the motivations behind someone’s behavior. Instead, you should stay on your side of the net and talk only about what you’re observing and your own reactions and feelings. That way, it’s harder for people to get their back up because you’re not devising rationales to explain someone else’s behavior. 

Consider, for example, the small but important difference in approaches in the following paragraph: "I’ve noticed you keep showing up 20 minutes late, and it seems like you don’t care." The boss has gone over the net here and accused the person of not caring. "I’ve noticed you keep showing up 20 minutes late, and it makes me feel like you don’t care." Here, with just a small language tweak, the boss is staying on the right side of the net, and avoided an overheated conversation because the employee can’t argue about how someone feels.

This approach was first described to me by Andrew Thompson, the chief executive of Proteus Digital Health, who said he uses it as a counterweight to a natural tendency of human beings. “People concoct all this imaginary garbage about why the person is doing this to them when in fact the person may not even realize that they’re doing anything,” Mr. Thompson said.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

How to Boost Your Creative Powers While You Travel

This evening, I'm writing this blog post as I look out on the streets of Dublin, Ireland.  For those who have visited this nation's capital, you  know that it's quite a vibrant city.  Fortunately, I've managed to be here during a wonderful period of sunny, albeit quite cool, weather.   Watching people stroll by on the cobblestone streets and sidewalks reminds me of the of power of travel as a stimulant for our creativity. IDEO's David and Tom Kelley once wrote about the ways in which observations while we travel can stir the brain.  They argue that we notice things that we normally take for granted amidst our daily routines at home:  

Things stand out because they're different, so we notice every detail, from street signs to mailboxes to how you pay at a restaurant. We learn a lot when we travel not because we are any smarter on the road, but because we pay such close attention. On a trip, we become our own version of Sherlock Holmes, intensely observing the environment around us. We are continuously trying to figure out a world that is foreign and new. Too often, we go through day-to-day life on cruise control, oblivious to huge swaths of our surroundings. To notice friction points - and therefore opportunities to do things better - it helps to see the world with fresh eyes.

In Unlocking Creativity, I explain why travel can be such a stimulating experience:

Saint Augustine once said, “The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.”  Travel disrupts our normal routines, and novelty stimulates the brain.   Living in another nation can open people’s eyes to new perspectives and cause people to question the typical ways that things are done in their home country.  Immersing yourself in another culture provides insight as to how people in other countries work, live, and play – and perhaps most importantly, how they approach certain types of problems.  

What then are some practical steps we can take this summer amidst our travels to ignite our creativity?
  1. Look for what is simpler and easier to do in this new place than at home, and try to identify what is more difficult or challenging to accomplish. What makes people smile and what makes them frown the most?
  2. Notice how people's daily routines differ from those of your friends, neighbors, and co-workers at home.  
  3. Watch out for products or services that do not exist at home.  Ask whether you are noticing a new trend emerge, or whether this particular innovation is simply well-suited to this location, but not relevant at home. 
  4. Ask yourself why people in this new place seem to enjoy some of the same things you enjoy at home, but in other instances, seem to have quite different wants and needs. 
  5. Ask the locals what they love about living here, and what they would like to see change. 
  6. Stroll into a supermarket or apparel store, and ask yourself why the layout differs from at home.  Why are retailers presenting products in a different manner?

Monday, June 03, 2019

Unlocking Creativity Ranked by BookAuthority as a Top Creativity Book

Unlocking Creativity made it to the Best New Creativity Books list as ranked by BookAuthority! 

BookAuthority collects and ranks the best books in the world, and it is a great honor to get this kind of recognition. Thank you for all your support!

Friday, May 31, 2019

Summer Reading List - 2019

As summer begins, I thought that I would share some recommended reading for those interested in learning more about leadership. Here are six books that I enjoyed immensely:

  • This book chronicles the remarkable rise and fall of Theranos, the blood testing startup founded by Elizabeth Holmes 
  • A terrific study in leadership, with all of Churchill's towering strengths and intriguing flaws described in depth.  This biography also draws on some fascinating source material never drawn upon by previous biographers, including the King's diaries.  
  • Former Netflix executive Patty McCord writes about organizational culture, drawing upon her work shaping the culture and people strategy at Netflix.  
  • Bahcall combines physics, psychology, and business knowledge to explain why bold ideas often get rejected by organizations, and how enterprises can structure themselves to nurture these crazy ideas.  

  • I've always believed that building a culture of candor is critical to exceptional organiztional performance.  Scott draws upon her research, as well as her time in industry, to describe how to engage employees in productive conflict and debate.  
  • Edmondson draws upon more than two decades of research on psychological safety to offer leaders key insights regarding how to build an environment where people feel comfortable speaking up.  
Oh... and you might wish to take a look at a book called Unlocking Creativity too! 

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Monday, May 20, 2019

How to Start a Presentation or Speech

Stanford's Matt Abrahams offers some important and useful advice for those crafting a speech or presentation.  He argues that you need to grab people's attention at the start, and he advises against the usual introductory remarks that people often give at the start of a speech or presentation.  I've listened to a number of speeches lately in which the speaker seems to talk for a minute or two before actually diving into the main content. It's a slow, often uninteresting start. They aren't grabbing my attention. Abrahams must hear that type of start often. He does a nice job of explaining how to launch more effectively. 

The most precious commodity in today’s world is not gold or cryptocurrency, but attention. We are inundated with a tremendous amount of information vying for our focus. Why then would so many people squander away an opportunity to gain attention by starting presentations or meetings with: “Hi, my name is … and today I am going to talk about …” This is a lackluster, banal, disengaging way to begin. Not only does it lack originality, it is downright silly since most speakers start this way while standing in front of a slide displaying their name along with the title of their talk.

Rather than commence with a boring and routine start, kick off your presentation like a James Bond movie — with action: You can tell a story, take a poll, ask a provocative question, show a video clip. Starting in this manner captures your audience’s focus and pulls them away from other attention-grabbing ideas, people, or devices. This action-oriented approach works for meetings, too. On your agenda, have the first item be one or two questions to be answered when you start. In this way, participants get engaged from the moment the meeting begins.