Monthly Archives: August 2014

What to learn – part 1

When I was a child, we played a game of counting cherry stones: “Tinker, tailor, solder, sailor”.  The idea was that the number of cherry stones in your bowl determined which of the 8 careers you were going to have.

As crazy as the game now seems, it does tie in with historical reality.  The vast majority of people were assigned one of a limited number of careers by circumstance, and that career choice determined what qualifications you needed, what you would learn, and the work you would do.

The learning was difficult.  It may have been through a long apprenticeship, through university or through a slow rise up the rungs of a company.  Learning was tougher and less efficient, as regulations and lack of technology stopped you customising learning to their own interests and the work they wanted to do.  Qualifications served to protect and help the existing members (if you qualified, you were pretty much guaranteed a living), rather than the community or those learning.  On the other hand, deciding what to learn was easy – you learned what your qualification required you to learn.  And motivation was pretty easy – when there’s no choice and learning the material is the only way to earn a living, you just do it.

Times have changed, for better and for worse.  Not only will most people change employer multiple times in their career, I expect most will change field at least once.  And within any field, the range of work people do varies massively.  In most fields, the concept of qualification no longer has the same meaning – the majority of the learning we do isn’t required to ‘qualify’.  On the positive side, this means that we’ve got opportunity to shape our learning to what will be useful for the work we want to do.  And technology makes learning cheaper and better than ever before – we are continually learning more about how to most effectively teach concepts and skills.

The downside is that there is no longer any guarantee that with some set of learning, we’ll be guaranteed a job.  We have to make up our own mind about what learning will make us useful – this is a huge challenge in a fast changing world.  And, with the lack of certainty that any additional piece of learning will make a significant difference to our usefulness, it can be extremely difficult to motivate ourselves to keep learning.

It is easy to consider this situation in abstract, but it is highly relevant to my career.  I do find the university course I studied relevant to my current work, but I wouldn’t call them qualifications, either in the sense that I need them or that they entitle me to the job.  And I often have to think about what to learn and how best to learn it, in order to ensure I stay useful and to improve the quality of the work I do.

This forms the introduction to my next blog post, in which I’ll discuss some of the things I’m currently considering learning, partly in the hope that mentioning them will motivate me to complete them, and partly to see if some of my readers have suggestions that will improve how I go about learning them.

Being useful

Excellent books have been written on how we should strive for work that incorporates mastery, autonomy, relationship and purpose. While I don’t disagree, I worry that these terms are each difficult concepts, making the whole message a bit hard to get your head around, let alone to propose steps to achieve.

I’d like to think about a much simpler idea – that we all want to be useful.

I believe that almost everyone cares about being useful, though their motivations may vary, for example:

  • Earning potential
  • Financial security
  • Security of status
  • A sense of purpose
  • Contributing to the world

If I look at parenting and our education system, an incredible amount of time is ultimately spent trying to make people useful. But it often isn’t acknowledged as that, and I think that not acknowledging it undermines our efforts. For example, trying to encourage students to gain formal qualifications, without highlighting the link between the qualification and usefulness, will reduce a student’s motivation, and eliminate opportunities to notice when there are better routes to usefulness.

In the past, I believe encouraging qualifications and getting students on a career track was the best way to guarantee usefulness. In today’s fast-changing world, there are very few careers that guarantee usefulness. Similarly, there are a lot more ways to be useful without formal qualifications.

As a result, I would love to see a renewed effort to look at how we teach usefulness, to children and to adults. I think that being useful is something that lots of people do naturally, but to differing degrees, and steps taken to help people become more useful will really improve their quality of life.

The sorts of skills that I believe promote usefulness are:

  • Mindfulness of other people’s problems
  • Looking out for the skills and knowledge that are missing
  • A willingness to learn new things, and persevere where others haven’t
  • Not limiting yourself to those situations where you know you will be rewarded (or being a Giver, as Adam Grant promotes in “Give or Take”)

There are many different ways to be useful, and so we need to avoid any one-size-fits-all solution. For example, programmes that help participants start their own business will be appropriate for some, but there are plenty of other ways to be useful – for example, in corporations, in the community, or in your family. Similarly, I’m not trying to discourage people from following their passions or strengths – if you can be useful doing something you love or are great at, you’ll find it easier and more satisfying.

I’d love to think more about what makes people useful, and how we can promote usefulness, so if any readers have good ideas or book recommendations, I’d love to hear them.

Finally, I’m sure that some people will consider the promoting of usefulness as mercenary or dehumanising. We do need to guard against that risk, and so I would actively avoid any attempt to maximise usefulness. There is more to life than being useful, and way more to each person than their usefulness, and I don’t consider that at odds with believing that the ability to be useful does improve our overall quality of life.

Living with the work you do – a few thoughts

When you work at for-profit companies like I do, you often get questioned by friends with strong moral compasses: “How can you live with yourself doing the work that you do?”.

I suppose I could get offended, or dismiss their questions as ignorant.  Instead, as I’ve learned just how easy it is to end up doing work that I would ultimately regret (or at very least should regret), I’ve learned to value the question.  I’d rather get questioned, and be forced to think about it, than have my friends stop caring what I did.

I’m going to take as a starting point that I aspire to respect the world and make it a better place (and to not make it a worse place).  I think that is an ambition that many people could relate to, and is neither reliant on nor at odds with most religious beliefs.

I’m not saying that I always do this – as with any aspiration, it is very easy to fall short.  And I don’t assume that everyone will act in this way – perhaps because they’ve tried and failed, or perhaps they’re driven by other motivations (though, as I discussed in my last post, there are plenty of good reasons to expect that they’re positively motivated).

Saying that it is my aspiration to respect the world and make it a better place is relatively easy.  Knowing how to do it, in an uncertain world, is a lot more difficult.  There are times when holding back from action is appropriate given the uncertainty, but other times when it is better to try.

It is difficult to know if the work I do creates a better world, a worse world, or doesn’t really make much difference.  If I thought there was a good chance it would make a worse world, I’d like to think I would stop doing it.  This gives appears to give an option: if I don’t look for any evidence of bad outcomes, I can honestly say I didn’t see any problem.  This is actually more easily done than you’d think – our brains are wired to look for evidence that confirms what we want to see and ignore what would be uncomfortable.  But given a genuine goal of wanting to make the world better, and not regret my actions, I should fight this tendency and actively look for evidence that my work is causing harm.

One useful trick to avoid convincing yourself that something is alright is to imagine justifying it to a friend, your grandchildren, or the public (for example, how would this action look in the tabloids).  If you know that you’d sound like you were on thin ice, you probably are.

Finally, when thinking about whether our work is making the world better or worse, it is easy to think only in terms of dramatic possibilities, and to  ignore the many smaller ways in which we all make a difference.  While it is great to work for something truly incredible, and we should avoid being part of anything destructive, I believe that most of the impact we have is through smaller acts – for example how we treat people we work with, whether we respect our customers, or how we treat our family and friends when we leave the office.  I don’t believe that working for a charity justifies you treating your colleagues inhumanely.  And anyone can choose to make the world better in even the most insignificant job.