Saturday, November 29, 2008

10,000 Hours

I recently reviewed Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers for City Journal. You can read the review here. There are some good things and bad things about the book, but one of the most interesting assertions is the idea that achieving expertise in anything requires about 10,000 hours of practice. The Beatles were forged in the crucible of a Hamburg gig that had them playing 8 hours a night day after day. Bill Gates got access to one of the first time-sharing computers in 1968, and so spent his teen years programming. He'd probably put in 10,000 hours by the time he started Microsoft in 1975. Top violinists likewise put in that many hours of solo practice trying to get better.

What does this have to do with Core Competency Moms? Broadly, being a Core Competency Mom is about focusing on what you do best: nurturing your kids and your paid work. But to really have a "black belt" in the concept, you need to follow through on the full definition. Core Competencies are things you do so well that other people cannot readily imitate them. This may be easy to do with your kids (no one else can be the mom you can to them) but few of us ever achieve this level of competence at our work. Do we ever deliberately practice any aspect of our jobs for 10,000 hours with the goal of getting better?

Maybe if your work is in the creative sphere you do (I have probably spent 10,000 hours writing and trying to get better at my writing). But what if your work is, say, managing an HR team? Do you regularly spend even a handful of hours trying to get better at it, let alone 10,000? It's a sobering thought. On the other hand, it's an inspirational thought, too. If you spend 10,000 hours trying to get better at something, you will definitely be better at it by the end. Will it be your core competency? Maybe not yet, but you'll be a lot closer than you were.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Outsourcing homeschooling

As I think more about the topic of core competencies, I'm continually amazed by the variety of things we can outsource. For instance, homeschooling.

I have a column in USA Today this morning called "Tailoring school to the child" that discusses the experience of families -- often with working moms -- who have managed to make homeschooling work. Well-to-do families can hire tutors or governesses; the rest of us can use online courses or even part-time schools. Many jobs these days allow a parent to be home and available during school hours. About 35 million corporate employees telecommute on occasion and the number of non-employer businesses (i.e. self-employment) is up 35% in 10 years. Mom or Dad can get junior started on his online math class, then go to the home office to make phone calls. You check in after a bit, and have lunch together. This allows parents to focus on their core competencies of carefully chosen work and nurturing their kids. Teaching need not be one of those core competencies to homeschool. Given all the educational benefits of homeschooling, it's a good thing that it's becoming available to people who don't want to or can't teach.

Monday, November 17, 2008

"Brush Lightly to Lift Nap"

I just turned in a draft of a feature to that compares the December 2008 Good Housekeeping with the December 1958 Good Housekeeping. I love combing through old magazines; these monthly missives show exactly how our society has changed on a day to day, personal level.

I'll post the piece once it's published of course, but in the meantime, I wanted to point out the most striking difference between 2008 and 1958. In 2008, we are obsessed with time. All the recipes discuss exactly how much "active time" is involved (a bit of information not deemed relevant, apparently, in 1958). Even the craft section talks about how "fast" these activities are. In 1958? It sounds like housekeeping was a full-on occupation -- one which could easily fill a whole 35-40 hours per week. My favorite instruction is for the proper care of an electric blanket. This is just for the drying stage: “Spread blanket over two parallel clotheslines to dry. When it’s almost dry, brush lightly to lift nap. Press binding with iron set at ‘synthetic’ or ‘rayon.’"

Heaven forbid our naps be unlifted!

I keep details like this in mind when people talk about how children have suffered from the march of mothers into the workforce. Perhaps in some cases they have. But on the whole, the reality is that women are spending just as much time interacting with their children now as they did in the 1950s and 1960s, not just per capita (we have smaller families now) but on an absolute scale. How have moms managed to pull this off? It's simple, really. Work did not take time away from kids. Instead, mothers on the whole have stopped thinking that lifting the nap on our electric blankets is a useful way to spend our time.

I think we can live with this trade off.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Core Competencies at Work

Part of being a Core Competency Mom is identifying your core competencies at work. These are the things you do best, and that other people cannot do nearly as well. We win at work by focusing as much as possible on these things, and outsourcing or ignoring everything else.

Interestingly, according to the new book Talent is Overrated, by Geoff Colvin, such focus may be part of a virtous cycle in becoming better at whatever your core competencies happen to be. I won't write too much about the book because I'm reviewing it for The American, but the gist is this: world class performers in a great many areas become best in class not necessarily through innate ability, but through sheer hours of deliberate practice. They figure out their weak areas within their core competencies, focus on improving these areas, and so become even better at their core competencies than everyone else.

I've been thinking about this as I'm trying to move my writing career to the next level. As I approach my 30th birthday, I have proven to myself that I can make a living -- a good living! -- as a professional writer. I can score bylines in national publications and get my ideas out there.

I have also been heartened, reading some of my work from my college days, at how much better I've become at shaping phrases than I used to be. According to Colvin's book, this makes sense. In college I was doing many things. Now, I spend at least 8 hours each workday, and usually more like 10 or 11, focusing on my writing projects. I also crank out an incredible number of words. I was adding it up from this year the other day: a 50,000-word ghosted book, 25 (so far) 500+ word columns for Scientific American, about 8 USA Today columns, 10 or so book reviews, multiple 3000-word plus features, about a dozen Huffington Post columns, a so-far unpublished book proposal and enough revisions of the novel I've been writing that I'll give myself credit for about 40,000 of the 80,000 words it entails. Plus a lot of blog posts and other stuff I'm forgetting. This is well, well, well over 100,000 words of material. And that's in one year. Given that I'm almost always getting feedback from editors and readers in ways that help me improve, how could I not be getting better?

But, of course, getting better is not necessarily the same thing as becoming world-class. In this globalized era, it is becoming more important than ever to truly be world class -- to truly be focusing on your core competencies -- because almost anyone's job can be outsourced. Even dentists. If flights are cheap, you can always go to another city, state or country for your dental work. This makes every occupation a winner-take-all field. So you need to define your occupation to the point where you can be that winner -- or if your field is broader, then you need to be the best that you possibly can.

So, after achieving a certain level of competence, how does one improve? How does one go from "good" to "great?" Some people swear by coaches. Some study the best work that exists and take what they can from that. Some take a ruthless inventory of their faults and set about correcting them. Others seek out new opportunities. I think there's probably a reasonable amount of luck involved, too, in achieving major career breakthroughs. In the coming months, I'll look at some people who have gone from good to great, and how they made this transition.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Turbo Productivity

As mentioned in the previous post, Jasper was home sick today. So I was mostly hanging out with him through some very cranky hours today. The one sick day reprieve? Nap time. He started rubbing his eyes around 12:50pm. By 1pm he was out. He wound up sleeping until almost 4:00 (though I was only banking on a 2 hour window). Let me just say, it was the fastest 3 hours of my life. I managed to crank out:

* A post for Gifted Exchange
* A post for this blog
* Emails regarding a potential new market - sending in clips and so forth
* Another revision of a previous Scientific American column
* A draft of another Scientific American column
* Most of a draft of a feature piece comparing the December 1958 Good Housekeeping with the December 2008 Good Housekeeping

This actually turned out to be a couple thousand words of material, all done in three hours of solid, pedal-to-the-metal work. Of course, it's not sustainable long term. These drafts will require many more hours of editing and such, and I totally ignored emails, phone calls and research that will need to be done at some point and would have been done had I had my normal 10-11 hour workday. But the point is, if you only have a certain number of hours to work, you will get your work done in that amount of time. That's what kills me about people (mostly men) who insist that their work cannot possibly be done in less than 12 hours a day, or some other amount of time. You know what? Get off the phone. Stop responding to stupid emails. Focus on exactly what needs to happen and ignore everything else. If you had to be the primary parent for a child and work during nap time, you'd figure out a way to do an 8-hour job in 3 hours. Working sweatshop hours is more about feeling important than anything else. That's not a core compentency, and we fool ourselves if we think it is.

The Real Gender Gap? Count the Dads in the Pediatrician's Office

Author's note: This piece originally ran in November, 2007, at The Huffington Post. As the "runny-nose season" hits us again, I thought it was worth resurrecting. Jasper is home sick today -- a fever of 101, a runny nose (which was bloody when he woke up) and some GI issues. Fun stuff.

A few weeks ago, the World Economic Forum released a report documenting the "Global Gender Gap." Each country was ranked according to the parity it had achieved on a number of dimensions such as workforce participation and health outcomes. To no one's surprise, the Nordic countries topped the list. The US was ranked 31st, below such countries as Belarus and Sri Lanka. As the study authors pointed out, parity does not imply that either gender is doing well.

It's interesting food for thought. But the question of whether girl and boy babies are vaccinated at equal rates is one thing. A more germane question for the average woman in a developed country -- where almost all children are vaccinated -- is who takes those girl and boy babies to get their jabs? The answer offers a lot of insight into the reality of gender equity here in America in 2007.

I've got vaccinations on the brain because this morning my son, Jasper, went to the pediatrician's office for his six-month visit. I tagged along this time for moral support, but my husband does a lot of work with vaccines, professionally, so pediatrician visits are his thing. He chose our doctor. Generally, he goes solo.

As usual, he emailed our son's stats (18 lbs 6 oz!) to the relatives. His pediatrician brother was suitably impressed with our kid's size, but was surprised that my husband had been present for the weighing and measuring. Seeing a dad at the pediatrician's office, he wrote, is a "rarity." Statistics back him up. One recent study of six community practices in New England found that only 9% of pediatrician visits featured a father attending alone. A 2002 study in Pediatric Nursing looking at outpatient visits to pediatric cardiologists found that mothers made 64% of visits, solo, with their kids. In 29% of cases, both parents came together, and in 5% of the cases, the father visited, solo, with his child.

I have been trying to figure out why this is. Sure, Bureau of Labor Statistics figures show that in 30% of married couple families with children under age 18, only the husband works outside the home (in 4%, only the wife works). But both are working in 64% of the cases. That's a much bigger number than nine. Indeed, roughly a third of married women with children under age six work full-time. If only 5-9% of doctor visits involve a father showing up, solo, that means the majority of married women who have small kids and work full-time are still doing doctor duty.

Maybe, in these families, the wife earns less than the husband or has a more flexible job. But this is a chicken and egg question. While a number of pediatricians' offices do offer evening or weekend hours (in which case, why aren't the dads there then?), taking a kid to the doctor generally involves taking time off work. You come late. You leave early. You race over on your lunch break and watch the clock the whole time. There is some evidence that women optimize for different things in life than men (a balanced life, vs., say, status). Also, kids don't go to the doctor that often. But if you are the one who always has to take time off work for doctors' visits or other events during the day, or take time off when kids are sick, it does affect your availability for work. The fact that many fathers do not arrange their work lives to accommodate this - because they trust that their wives will pick up the slack - is one of the reasons men earn more than women. Yes, the vast majority of women who work full-time enjoy caring for their kids (which is why working moms and stay-at-home moms report spending roughly the same amount of time tending to the emotional needs of their children; working moms compensate for having two jobs by sleeping less and doing a lot less housework). But no one really enjoys holding a wriggling baby's arms while the doctor jabs the kid in the leg.

Yet someone has to do it. The truth is, there is a certain amount of work associated with parenthood that simply has to be done. You can outsource a lot of it. You can hire folks to do meal prep, laundry, vacuuming, and so forth. But almost no one would send anyone but a parent to the doctor's office. If fathers refuse to do half of the visits, and stay home with their kids half the time that they're sick, that means we're a long way from domestic equality.

We may never reach parity. Anyone who's managed an office knows that men can be very good at getting out of work that they don't perceive as high value, or don't want to do. Indeed, the study from Pediatric Nursing found that one of the major reasons fathers missed pediatrician appointments is that they anticipated a lengthy wait at the office. Of course, someone had to deal with that wait -- clearly, these men were stating, in not so many words, that their time was more valuable than their partners' time.

But things are changing. Fathers spend 153% more time on child care each week than they did in 1965. It's still less than moms, but not as much less as it used to be. More women than men now go to college which, over time, will change the dynamic in families of who has the breadwinning job. And hey, my husband takes our baby to the doctor. This morning at the office, I saw two other dads with kids in Baby Bjorns. That's reason for optimism - even if the US never overtakes Sweden (or Belarus) atop the World Economic Forum list.

Friday, November 7, 2008

The Second Shift

If you have a job and kids -- and want to spend time with them -- the rhythm of the workweek can present a challenge. Many professionals put in 12-hour days from, say, 7:30AM to 7:30PM. Unfortunately, this almost precisely overlaps with the hours small children are awake! What do you do?

I am never "done" with work at 5pm, but what I'm trying to do in my journey to becoming a Core Competency Mom is to consciously stop working around then. I then devote my attention to Jasper for the next few hours. Then, around 8pm when he goes to bed, I start working again. I can usually get in another 2 hours of work, giving me closer to an 11 hour day. Add in another 5 hours on the weekend, and you can still put in a near 60 hour week while still spending a reasonable amount of time with the kids.

I am also finding that the hours of 8-11pm are good for scheduling "date night" or events with friends. The sitter has an easy time of it (she shows up after the baby is in bed) and Jasper never knows the difference.

My guess is that more family friendly offices understand this second shift concept. No one schedules meetings that end after 5pm, but people do schedule phone calls and answer emails from 8pm to 10pm. If you're interviewing for a job, though, and see that people regularly schedule meetings from, say, 3pm to 7pm -- you should run!

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Life, Uncluttered

(Author's Note: This piece originally ran at The Huffington Post on May 29, 2008. We have since moved to a bigger apartment).

It is a truth universally acknowledged that major life changes tend to involve a lot of stuff. My husband Michael and my wedding four years ago increased the amount of glassware in our apartment exponentially. The birth of our son last spring - without trading up from our 1-bedroom apartment - necessitated putting our dining room table in storage and turning the dining "alcove" (read: hallway) into a nursery. Jasper's toys and clothes quickly filled the available space. Add in the constant barrage of newspapers, magazines, and review copies of books that arrive on the desk in my home office (read: a corner of the bedroom) and the whole house was starting to look like a "before" scene on TLC's Clean Sweep.

I suppose it's not surprising. I've always been a relatively messy person, albeit one with enough self-awareness to recognize that. When I went off to college, I requested neat roommates in order to keep my habits in check. Now, though, since I've been known to log 23 hours a day inside the apartment, I've been feeling the need to do something about the mess. I recently threw out two bags of trash from my desk when I couldn't find a document I thought I needed. I ordered a toy basket to give everything a home.

Still, the clutter seemed to be winning. So I did what any modern woman would do.

I called a professional organizer.

The field of professional organizing is relatively new - and is thoroughly a creation of the modern era. In the past, a home maker was simply expected to have these things under control. Standolyn Robertson, president of the National Association of Professional Organizers and owner of the organizing service Things in Place, told me that years ago, she described her vision of organizing closets to her high school guidance counselor. The counselor told her "You want to be a wife."

But that wasn't quite it. Organizing is a skill, just as composing advertising jingles is a skill. In theory anyone can do it, but some people do it much better than others. The hilarity of professional organizing is not that it exists, it's that in the past all women were expected to have this skill, just as the job description of "wife" roped in cooking, cleaning, laundering, home decorating, landscaping, birthday party planning and scheduling in addition to childcare.

Now, a growing number of women are focusing on their core competencies - nurturing their families and their paid work - and bringing in the professionals for the other stuff. Organizer Peter Walsh is a staple on Oprah. You can become certified in professional organizing. NAPO has about 4,000 members.

In my attempt to make my life run smoothly, I decided to try professional organizing services myself. My family has some experience with this, at least on the time management side. About a year and a half ago, my husband's employer contracted with organizational guru Julie Morgenstern. She met with Michael and tried to wrestle his schedule under control. First she made fun of him for having a 100-page "To Do" list (it isn't really 100 pages, he just keeps making new lists on top of the old ones, so the file is 100 pages, but there's only a limited number of active items at any given time). Then she gave him some tips: Don't check email all day long. Carve out blocks of time to work on projects. Enlist his assistant as a partner in managing his schedule (that is, establish priorities so she could check everything against those priorities before sticking anything on the calendar).

He didn't do well with following her advice. As he explained to me, in a lot of corporate environments these days, people expect immediate responses. That creates the risk that someone is sitting around, ineffectively waiting for the next piece of direction. In other words, like an arms race in which the first person to buckle loses, everyone is checking his Blackberry every two minutes, because he thinks everyone else is checking his Blackberry. It's hard to change habits.

That's something Janine Sarna-Jones, the New York-based owner of Organize Me, said when she showed up at my apartment last week. I'd given her a call to see if professional organizing might prove more effective on our closets than on my husband's schedule. Janine, a former protégé of Julie Morgenstern's, noted that people needed to be committed to making changes in order for them to actually stick. So for the next two hours, as I studied her methods, she studied my home office and kid space systems, and my commitment to actually doing things differently. She examined my teeming bookshelf warily. She opened the coat closet and asked if I had any idea what was in there. She noted the stack of Pampers boxes currently supporting a basket with diapers, wipes and a trash can at changing table level. She took notes.

Then she sat me down on the sofa.

"Here's the scoop," she said. "You guys have done an amazing job." I raised my eyebrows. She explained. We had managed to create a nursery in the former dining alcove of a 1-bedroom apartment that looked pretty good. We had proven ourselves able to go through stuff and dump it. Despite our chaotic schedule, we'd kept our kid well-fed (I guess the bar on organization is pretty low). We were not disorganized. We had a more specific problem: "You guys are lazy," she said. Quite simply, if our messiness actually bothered us, we would have done something about it long ago. As it is, we have the ability to walk daily past the car seat and bouncy seat our son has outgrown, know there is a storage space in Long Island City that's been leased to us, and yet we still haven't rented the Zipcar or hailed a cab and gone back out there. "You get 80% there," she said, "and then the last 20% you say screw it."

I've never been one for accepting 80%, and certainly a number of tweaks could make our lives smoother. We could corral the tub toys into a mesh basket so I wouldn't step on them when I showered. I could create a standing date with a house cleaning service, rather than scheduling it when we remembered. I should just order new sheets rather than hating the old, discolored ones stuffed into the linen closet. I should find spots for a few step ladders around the apartment ("you're not short; you have high ceilings") and hang brooms, mops and the umbrella stroller on the backs of closet doors. My son might benefit from an actual bedtime.

But as Janine pointed out, messiness and clutter don't necessarily mean you're dysfunctional. In fact, my life functions pretty well. My desk is a mess, but I know before any given week starts what my priorities will be, both professionally and personally. I know what my long-term goals are for any given year. When I identify a problem that bothers me, I fix it. Quick. When I realized that a jogging stroller would let my husband and me run together on weekends without having to find a sitter, a jogging stroller arrived in the apartment inside three days. The fact that I have a mail station in the house? Bonus points. "Most of the time when people call me, it's because they're in pain," Janine says. "You guys have a lot of clutter," but she didn't feel the hurt. Quite frankly, we didn't need a lot of ongoing organizational help.

So was the assessment worthwhile? I think so. It's always good to get an outside opinion on a situation. Thinking through the hot spots in my house has given me the motivation to start cleaning out the closet and getting rid of the clothes that I don't wear. But it's nice to know that, for all my messiness, I could be doing a lot worse. I mean, doesn't everyone store their pans on top of the stove?

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

In which I discover rotisserie chicken

Today was not a great one on the core competency front. I lost a lot of time running around. Granted, the things I was running around for were mostly things only I could do (get a flu shot, vote). I also managed to outsource most of the planning for my birthday party, so that's one less thing to think about. But I also spent several hours fact-checking a feature of mine -- if I still had my assistant, she could have done that. I had to check a Post Office box and fax two forms from Kinkos -- again, things I could have outsourced. I really need to get a fax machine for my home office. By the time I was on my way to pick up Jasper at 5 o'clock in order to spend an hour with him before I left for choir, I was tired, hungry, and didn't have the energy to make dinner.

Then it happened. I walked past the D'Agastinos grocery store on 38th and 3rd. The most wonderful rotisserie smell was wafting out the doors. I paused. Then I went in. I grabbed a whole roast chicken from the counter by the check-out for $7.98. Is this a great country or what? I brought it home and Jasper and I had a dinner of chicken and apples. Tasty, satisfying, effortless and -- since there are enough leftovers for lunch -- cheaper than a burger and Happy Meal at Mickey D's.

I realize that the fact that one can purchase pre-cooked rotisserie chicken at the grocery store is not news to most people. It technically isn't to me, either, but I've never done it. Perhaps it's my upbringing, but I've always viewed grocery stores as the province of, well, groceries. You should at least have to stick stuff in the oven if you bring it home, right? I don't think my childhood ever featured a pre-cooked rotisserie chicken from the grocery store. I think the reason that I never wandered over to the ready-made hot meal counter before is that I assumed purchasing such things was wasteful.

But it's only wasteful if I value my time at zero. As it is, purchasing a ready-made, hot meal meant I could simply walk in the door, stick Jasper in his high chair and start feeding him and myself. I didn't have to wall myself off in the kitchen to keep him from opening the oven or reaching for the pans. I didn't have to use any of my limited time with him to do anything but be with him. And so, I'm guessing Tuesday may be rotisserie night more often.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Welcome to the Core Competency Mom blog!

Here's the story of how I came to start this journey:

March 6, 2008 was, by any measure, a nutty day for me. I was up early to change, dress and nurse my then 10-month-old son before shuttling him over to his daycare. I hopped in a taxi and battled traffic to Penn Station. There I caught the Acela to Washington DC. I met with editors all day while – during breaks – cranking out a column for USA Today on college financial aid policies. I got back on the train at 10pm and tried to think through my priorities over the next week: meeting a new editor at Scientific American to talk about a potential columnist gig, speaking at the NYU School of Journalism, flying to Boston to interview an MIT economist so I could turn around a profile of her as quickly as possible. My husband had been able to care for our son that evening, but he would be gone most of the next week for yet another business trip.

Functioning as a single parent always made me worry, so I couldn’t sleep. I decided to check the headlines. I found myself reading an article about a beautiful woman who had just announced that she was expecting her fifth child in May. No huge news there – except that she also happened to be the governor of Alaska.

Seven months later, everyone knows about Sarah Palin. She burst on the national scene in late August when Sen. John McCain selected her as his running mate. Even people that didn’t like her politics were awed by her big career and big family. The Economist quoted one voter musing that, as a mom of five, she could barely keep milk in the house.

I usually have milk in the house, but my first reaction was awe as well. Publishers have kept bookshelves and magazine racks full over the past few years with tomes about how hard it is to “have it all.” In these tales of woe, the “having it all” bar is often set low enough just to mean a regular full-time job and one child. Palin was running a state, running a family that could field a basketball team, while simultaneously finding time to run 8-9 minute miles outside in the Alaskan cold and eventually run for vice president as well. By the time Palin appeared at the Republican National Convention in September, her husband Todd had taken over most of the childcare duties for their family. But this had not been the case during much of her rise to power, during which he’d been working on the BP pipeline, running a commercial fishing business, and winning the snowmobile race known as the Iron Dog.

The more I thought about Palin during that late night train ride, the more I kept coming back to a number: 168. That’s the number of hours in a week. Unlike the electoral college system Palin would soon face, it’s an absolutely democratic concept. All the money and power in the world won’t buy you an extra second. It’s the number of hours allotted to Palin, to such luminaries as mom-of-three and Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling, mom-of-three and CEO of WellPoint Angela Braly, single-mom-of-two and now Princeton president Shirley Tilghman and, of course, to me. Clearly, some women had managed to do a lot more than I was doing in 168 hours. They raised multiple children while engineering the kinds of career breakthroughs that made the world take notice.

As I disembarked in Penn Station at 1:50am to cab it home for a date with my breast pump, one question I had, of course, is how they did it. The second question, a more personal one, is whether I could do anything like that in the 168 hours per week that the universe allots me, too.

I've been considering that question for months. I wrote a 9-part series for The Huffington Post in May-July of this year about what I called "Core Competency Moms." The idea is that -- as a working mom -- time is your most valuable resource. So, like a business, you do best when you allocate your most valuable resource to its highest value purposes. For working moms, this is nurturing your family members and work that focuses on Brand You. You outsource or ignore everything else -- and hence have time for the things that actually matter.

This blog is an extension of that series. I hope to continue the discussion, and to document how I am attempting to take my writing career to the next level while (hopefully) expanding my family as well. This blog will also serve as an archive of my writing for various publications on this topic. Feel free to get in touch with me (lvanderkam at yahoo dot com) with any questions or to share your own story.