Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Rise of the Core Competency Mom (Doublethink)

My (warning!) lengthy article on The Household is Flat: The Rise of the Core Competency Mom is finally up at Doublethink's website. You can read the article here.

Just a note that over the next month, this blog will likely be migrating to my new site, It's not operational yet, but since I recently landed a book contract for this material, it will be soon!

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Columbia Women in Business Conference

This past Friday, I participated in a panel at the Columbia Business School's Women in Business Conference. We talked about "Generational Issues in the Workplace" and I played the role of Gen Y Gadfly (whether I actually am in Gen Y or not is anyone's guess -- some say that 1978 is the beginning of that generation). Our wonderful moderator, Gabrielle, asked me to participate because of the message in Grindhopping which, the more I think about it, was pretty much a Gen Y career manifesto.

Here's the gist of my message: These days, there is no chance that the place that hires you at 25 is the place you will retire from at 65. We all know that, but Gen Y really knows that. And when you know that going in, you behave differently. You know that you will be in charge of your career. So every job becomes a project -- hopefully one that will give you new skills, a new network, and move you closer to where you want to be. So of course you want lots of feedback! And of course you want to be challenged and make an impact immediately. How else are you going to land the next project? Gripes are legion among older folks who work with Gen Y about people wanting to present their ideas to the CEO on day 1, but on some level, given that you're never going to be anywhere for long, you can understand why people would swing for the fences.

The other big Gen Y reality is that we've grown up with technology. We have fully absorbed that most knowledge work can be done anytime, anywhere. In fact, it can be done more efficiently not in a regular office from 8-5 (or 6, or 7...) So what we call "flexibility" is, for Gen Y, not a privilege to be gained from years of loyal service to a company. It's an opening bid.

Personally, I think these are positive characteristics, not whiny entitlement. Every job ad I've ever read says that managers want people who are entrepreneurial and results-oriented. The problem is when managers don't realize what this really means.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Divvying up your work hours

A growing proportion of us, these days, don't have jobs. We have projects. If we're freelancers or entrepreneurs, we may be working for many different clients at once. But even if we work full-time for an employer, we increasingly have to choose how we'll construct our career portfolios across different teams, topics, offices and the like.

So how do you figure out how to allocate your time? It's an important question. You have to find the right balance between doing work that pays your bills today, work that you really enjoy, and work that prepares you for big breakthroughs in the future.

When I was writing Grindhopping, I decided to use a bit of a prehistoric analogy. Imagine we are cavemen trying to land enough sustenance to survive.

Dream projects are mastodons -- you can feast on their oh-so-satisfying meat for ages. Unfortunately, they're not exactly easy to catch. You might only catch a few during your life.

Good projects are fish and berries. They're quite tasty and round out your diet and are much easier to find than mastodons, though not as easy to find as grasses and tree bark. These are the projects you do because they fill you up (i.e., they pay the bills).

If you have big career plans, you always want to be chasing a mastodon (a dream project). Even if you've caught one and are currently chewing, you still want to be thinking about the next one.

Choose fish and berries (good projects) wisely to keep you happy and fulfilled at work, and improve your chances of catching future mastodons. In general, this means projects that you care about, that bring you into contact with people who will form a good network, and that get you a little closer to where you're going.

And remember, even tree bark (pay-the-bills projects) can keep you on the mastodon path if you use some judgment.

I've been thinking about this over the past few days because I've been tallying up my 1099s from 2008. It was a good year. I had one big pay-the-bills project -- a book ghostwriting gig. This strikes me as a reasonable tree bark gig. At least it's in my field and keeps my writing skills sharp, and hence keeps me on the mastodon trail! I had some good fish-and-berries projects -- a weekly column for Scientific American turned out to be an awesome opportunity which I've really enjoyed and which has honed my profile and technical writing immensely. I'm writing longer, think-y feature pieces for publications like City Journal. I also spent a lot of time working on chasing my mastodons -- I finished a draft of a novel, and also went through several versions of a non-fiction book proposal.

In general, in life, people tend to think you should spend more time on things which pay you more. This is certainly one approach. But if you want to build a dream career -- a high profile, difficult one -- I firmly believe you have to do something radically different. You have to spend most of your time on the things which carry no guarantee of any payoff whatsoever.

Here's how it broke down for me. I cranked out that ghosted book in 5-6 weeks. That's 10% of my time. It also represents about 55% of my income. I spent about half my time on the fish and berries projects of column and feature writing. That came out to the other 45% of my income. And I devoted the rest of my time -- 40% of it -- to the novel and building a platform and writing a proposal for a non-fiction book. During the entirety of 2008, these things earned me nothing. Zilch. OK, some of the platform building earned me some fish and berries projects (speeches and articles). But no book money. And I wanted a book contract.

Fingers crossed, though, I seem to now have an offer for the book. And the novel will go out to publishers soon. So the investment I made in 2008 will pay off in 2009.

I, of course, am partial to my time split, though I realize this is harder to pull off in some circumstances. But I do think that you need to devote at least a third of your time to pursuing dream projects. Since life has a way of interrupting, this means aiming for half (with the understanding that you won't necessarily get that). Spend another third on the fish and berries, and another third on the tree bark, and you have a pretty good formula for workplace bliss.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The Great TV Disaster!

I have a column in today's USA Today about the digital TV conversion. My take? Our government has zero interest in making sure that no one misses a second of TV. We already watch way too much -- so much that we don't spend time doing lots of important things (playing outside, studying, exercising, working...) You can read the column here.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

What would you do with an extra 15 minutes?

Real Simple magazine posed a question to its readers a few months ago: What would you do with an extra 15 minutes per day?

The answers had an incredibly wistful tone. People said they'd kiss more. They'd write real thank you letters. They'd write in their journals. They'd linger in the bath, make photo albums and pause to appreciate fond memories.

Of course, the more I think about the 168 Hours concept, and the more I write about and study the issue of time, the more absurd I find this question. If you sleep 8 hours per night, that leaves 112 waking hours per week. If you work 36 hours per week -- average for moms who are in the workforce full-time -- that leaves a solid 76 waking, non-work hours to tackle your other priorities. If you work 40 hours, that leaves 72. If you work 50 -- more than 90% of working mothers -- that leaves 62. If you work 60 -- more than 99% of all employed Americans -- that leaves 52.

That's still a fair chunk of time -- far more time than the average stay-at-home mom, for instance, spends caring for or playing with her kids. If you're not tackling your personal priorities in 52 hours per week, or 62, or 72 for that matter, would it change things to suddenly have 73.75 hours? That's the equivalent of an extra 15 minutes per day.

In other words, if you think it's important to smooch, write letters, make photo albums, sit in the tub or what have you, and you're not doing it, you have a motivation problem, not a time problem. It's as if the readers assumed that in an extra 15 minutes per day, they'd become different people.

Monday, January 26, 2009

The joy of work

I love to write about people who love their jobs -- particularly people who are pretty much doing what they dreamed about when they were growing up. One such person? Jonathan Gershenzon, director of the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology in Germany. He grew up burying his nose in California's chaparral and, decades later, is still trying to figure out why plants smell the way they smell. You can read the piece, Making Sense of Plant Scents, at Scientific American.

Part of being a Core Competency parent is choosing work that you do best, and that other people cannot do nearly as well. This is never easy, but if you choose what you love best in the world, you're probably on the right track.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Baby Food

Jill Lepore has a fascinating article in the January 19 New Yorker detailing the cultural history of nursing and breast pumps. We all know that breastfeeding is best for babies. Interestingly enough, though, she notes, we have now decided to treat breast milk itself as the vital component of breastfeeding, not the cuddling, body heat, skin-to-skin contact and other things that makes it so fun for babies.

In other words, we now believe that pumping is the equivalent of nursing, and that being supportive of breastfeeding means giving women time and privacy to pump. Consequently, the workplaces deemed "breastfeeding friendly" are the ones with the most gold-plated pumping rooms, which doesn't really make sense. In reality, the most breastfeeding friendly companies are the ones that either pay for long maternity leaves, or have a culture where working from home or bringing your baby to work is no big deal. Some companies with lactation rooms, Lepore claims, go so far as to decree that babies are not allowed in there for a quick nip!

I bought a Medela Pump-in-Style in order to have a bit more freedom to come and go when I was nursing Jasper. My breast pump has been many places -- Sen. Harry Reid's office, for instance, and Delhi, India, where I had to demonstrate what it did for a customs official who no doubt thought "these white woman are absolutely crazy." But it was not pleasant. One of the reasons we chose Jasper's particular daycare is that it was my equivalent of on-site childcare. Less than a 10-minute walk away, I could pop over for (his) lunch.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Flanagan's Smart Home

I just turned in a review of Barbara Flanagan's Smart Home to I will post it when it runs. In essence, Flanagan lists the 98 objects she believes are necessary for a well-appointed abode. Why teaspoons, but not salad forks, make the list can certainly provide fodder for debate.

More broadly, though, Flanagan has her finger on the cultural pulse. Lots of people are looking for ways to pare down, scale back, and focus only on things or ideas that matter. The whole Core Competency Parent concept is about focusing more time on fewer things -- the things that actually bring joy and meaning to our lives. For most working parents, these are our careers (if we're in the right job), nurturing our family members (kids + spouse), health that comes from adequate sleep and exercise, and a social or community life that brings us joy.

Unfortunately, some of Flanagan's objects would quickly steal time away from these things. She believes in linen napkins, not paper towels. If you've got children, this soon creates mountains of laundry. She doesn't like non-stick pans because of the potential environmental problems of their coatings, but for me, any time not spent doing dishes is work, family, or leisure time gained. It is true that fewer objects take less time to manage, but why, why, do two of these objects need to be an iron and an ironing board? Either don't wear clothes that wrinkle or send them out. Life is too short, she notes, to bother with separate salad forks, but I certainly believe -- given that I'm not in the professional cleaning business -- that life is also too short to iron.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Ernst & Young speech

I gave a presentation on the Core Competency Parent concept at Ernst & Young in Los Angeles this Wednesday. It went well and it is always fun to talk about these issues. What I try to tell people in these talks is that there are 168 hours in a week. If you break that down rather purposefully, then you can fit a lot in. You can sleep 8 hours a night, work 55 hours a week, spend more time with your kids than the average stay-at-home parent, train for a half-marathon, have two date nights a week with your partner, and still find time to volunteer or attend religious services. Phew! Sounds like a lot! But of course, with that kind of full life, there's not much room for things that aren't important, and so you have to be ruthless about getting other things off your plate.

If your organization would like to hear from me, and see a sample Core Competency Parent schedule, shoot me an email at lvanderkam at yahoo dot com. The speech can be tweaked for both women's groups and mixed gender groups.