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.