The Price of Excellence

I’m currently reading a book written by Ryan Holiday called The Obstacle is the Way. It’s basically a treatise on stoicism, and how meeting obstacles with the right perspective, energy, and will can let you convert them into opportunities. If you’re a subscriber to the stoic philosophy, or if you want to read stories about people from history who exemplified this way of living, then I recommend that you read this book.

Saying that, this is one of those self-help books that lends itself to occasional oversimplification; hard not to do that when you’re making strong, prescriptive statements.

One part of the book I take issue with is its call for people to pursue excellence, regardless of the circumstances. Basically, the author’s thesis for that chapter is that if someone has to motivate you to do something well, then something’s wrong with your attitude. What you have to cultivate is to attack any task in front of you to the best of your ability. You need to bring to bear an excellence ethic, a perspective that says “this is something I made with my hands, a product of my mind, a service from my effort; it must be great no matter what.”

Excellence is a Premium Product…

The thing is, if you’re going to bring heroic effort to everything you produce, then you’re going to run yourself into the ground eventually. Even machines wear out or burn out; human beings need to eat, sleep, play, and fulfill themselves in far more aspects beyond their work in order to be satisfied and productive. So while I do appreciate the romance behind single-focused, eye-on-the-object workmanship, I also appreciate that the worker is a person.

Also, one has to recognize the value of the workmanship in terms of the time value of mastery. No one is born a master, or even becomes a master overnight. It takes a lot of failures to get to mastery, and those failures have a cost that the master happily paid.

…That Clients Don’t Often Appreciate

The tragedy of it is that in a lot of industries, there’s no consideration made for this. Editors, proofreaders, and copy editors (yes, those are different things) are often not compensated well because their expertise isn’t appreciated: experts, the ones who know what they’re doing, should charge more because of their attention to detail, meticulousness, appreciation of nuances in style, syntax, punctuation, and what-have-you. But because clients don’t appreciate the difference between someone claiming to be an expert editor/proofreader/copy editor and someone who actually is one, the truly skilled are forced to compete in a lopsided wage war against those who provide a defective product.

Similar arguments can be made for many creative industries. Musicians have to scrape by for their gigs. There are video editors who are forced to churn out hundreds of videos a month. Many graphic artists, writers, and designers are approached by clients and publishers who have no idea what they want, and want to pay them little to produce it (Internet personality Wil Wheaton has actually spoken out, slamming the use of “exposure on a unique platform” as a substitute for monetary incentives).

In a Perfect World, There’s No Settling for Dirt

There’s a popular story about Pablo Picasso: supposedly, he was once approached by a woman who asked him to draw her portrait, which he did with a single stroke. The woman was delighted at the result, but dismayed when Picasso asked her for five thousand dollars for it. She asked “Why so expensive? It took you only a moment to do it!”

Picasso replied, “Madam, it took me my entire life.”

While not all of us are Picassos, many of us are engaged in some sort of creative work, which clients often take for granted. In the mad dash towards “gaining the edge in customer service,” many companies and freelancers are pressured to sell themselves short. A video recently released on YouTube also calls out the unfairness in the common advertising industry practice of asking for RFS. Check out the video below to learn more about it (in a tongue-in-cheek) way:

In the Philippines, many Filipino workers are concerned about the impending competition that would be introduced by the APEC integration next year. They’re afraid that skilled workers from other countries could easily take jobs away from us because they are more qualified. That may be true, but consider this: how many of them would want to? With our country’s high income tax rate, slow Internet connection, and poor transportation infrastructure, there are many things that would turn off foreign businessmen and workers from entering our job market. I’m sure at least some of them would walk away from invitations from our employers. That’s the kind of leverage being skilled should get you.

Basically, there’s just one point that I think should be made about excellence: No one is asking anybody to be all about the money. No one is saying that your excellence should only be pursued when there’s an incentive to pursue it. However, you also have to respect yourself enough to know when someone isn’t recognizing the worth of your work.

Be a Workaholic for Today

Manic Monday. Hump Day Wednesday. TGIF.

We have all these expressions that connote one statement: work sucks, and you shouldn’t want to do it.

Of course, that’s not always true. If you play your cards right, you will most likely end up in a job that you enjoy on a career track that’s fulfilling. However, because life is life, we know that there’s no way a high can stay. What goes up, must come down. And the struggle through the down days can be really, really exhausting.

In a previous post, I touched on the concept of lying to get through a grind. That got me thinking about the different ways we lie to ourselves: self-lies make us feel good about ourselves, drive us to make certain purchasing decisions, and direct other aspects of our behavior. So, why can’t we take some of those lies, tweak them, and use them to make ourselves more productive?

“I Can Quit Anytime I Want”

Do a Google search on addiction, and you’ll eventually find some resources that talk about how much addicts lie. They use these lies to support and justify their addiction. Whether it’s gambling, alcohol, drugs, or anything else, many addicts are characterized by how untruthful they are—to others as well as to themselves.

So, here’s one thing that may work for you if you’re struggling to get through the workday: do a little bit of roleplaying. Pretend that you’re a workaholic. Try to visualize yourself not as a working stiff, but as a productivity-driven madman who can’t get enough, who needs to stay busy. Imagine what it would be like, and think the thoughts that would motivate such an individual. Below are a few suggestions:

“I can quit anytime I want”: this one’s pretty common, and it’s pretty powerful. Addicts often go for one more hit, one more smoke, or one more round at the table, telling themselves it’s the last one and they can then quit. So I believe pretending to be a workaholic involves the same kind of self-negotiation. Tell yourself you’ll just finish one more report, one more job, or one more task, and then set to it. Then when it’s done, tell yourself that again. Keep making incremental progress, and you’ll pretty much make it through.

“Other people don’t know what they’re missing”: Sometimes it’s easy to get affected by others’ opinions of a job. They may say that it’s useless, or fruitless, or otherwise a waste of time. Instead of getting bogged down by other people’s negativity and low morale, try thinking about the job as a fulfilling endeavor. Maybe there’s a rush you get from getting the formulas in a spreadsheet to add up right. Maybe you get some kind of high from spotting an incorrect use of a semicolon or apostrophe in a report or a piece of creative copy. The point is, if you look hard, you’ll probably find something about your current job from which you can derive satisfaction, and you can cling to it like no one else can.

“There are other people who do more”: A lot of addicts will use this defense, saying that they are not as bad as others who do more drugs, gamble more, or otherwise indulge more in the addictive habits that they are accused of submitting themselves to. They say that they’re still okay because they haven’t hit rock bottom yet. In the context of work, we can flip this by thinking about other people who have worked harder or achieved more. Compare what you have done with what others have, and see if you can match their accomplishments. On the flip side, if you respond more to negative, cynical viewpoints, maybe you can look at how much worse other people have it; maybe they have to do more work, or their tasks are more demanding, so you should consider yourself fortunate.

When Lies Don’t Work, Go with Mantras

If you don’t want to identify with addicts and their self-lies, that’s okay: there are still some thoughts you can use to get yourself through the ennui and tedium that work sometimes brings.

“Someone’s got to do it”: I have a colleague at work who describes himself as having a “Superman” complex, and I can see why. The guy basically does a lot of different tasks covering a lot of different functions. He’s basically a jack of all trades, and not a week goes by that I don’t admire his tenacity, and his determination to help the team. So that’s one thing you can tap into. Don’t do it for abstract concepts like KPIs, or distant targets like quarterly sales goals. Do it for your team.

“Work gives life meaning”: Realistically, it’s quite possible that you’re not engaged enough in your company to care much about your team. In that case, you can just try to convince yourself to ignore everything else, and just do the work for the work’s sake. No man should rely on the world to reward him unconditionally; one must channel his talents, skills, and knowledge into a worthy endeavor that adds value to the world. No matter how small your job is, believe that it contributes to society in some way, and doing the work adds more to your character than leisure or laziness ever will.

So, when you find your motivation waning, try changing your mindset. Pretend to be a workaholic, even if you’re not. Maybe you won’t believe it all the way, but then again, you won’t believe how far it can take you, either.

Start with the Small Wins

What do you do when the hardest part is at the start?

You know what I’m talking about.

Maybe you’re looking at that cursor on your word processor, mocking you as it blinks on and off in the blankness.

Or maybe your mind is whirring at octo-core speeds in the presence of your crush, dismissing conversation starters almost as soon it conceives them in an infinite loop of anxiety.

Or maybe you want to quit smoking and are smoking just one last cigarette–for the hundredth time. 

It’s like when you’re pushing something. Ever notice how when you start to push something, it’ll refuse to budge at first, but it feels like it doesn’t resist as much once you’ve gotten it to move? (Remember the concepts of static friction and kinetic friction from your high school physics classes?) Or in certain chemical reactions, there’s a high energy toll that needs to be paid (technically called activation energy) before the reaction can take place.

A more fun metaphor is when you’re on a roller coaster. Sure, it’s exciting, with the cars going through the twists, turns, and loops at devil-daring speeds. But before that, the cars have to slowly go up the highest peak of the ride, getting pulled up by a heavy chain, each clack-clack of the wheels against the rails building anticipation, excitement, and nervousness among the passengers.

So that’s the way it is with a lot of tasks. A lot of the time, you have to muster enough willpower to start, and from the initial grind, you gather enough mental momentum to power through to the finish.

Still, it doesn’t change the fundamental problem: how can you muster the willpower needed to get through the first hurdle when even that’s really challenging? How do you keep yourself motivated to climb when even base camp seems like an impossible summit?

Simple: don’t even think about base camp.

Think about what comes beforehand, and aim for that. Then aim for the next step. Then the next. And before you know it, you’ll have gotten over the hump.

Speaking in angry, impassioned ebonics, Eric Thomas puts it really well:

You got to go in the future and see it, baby, and then you got to come back in the present… you got to take that big goal, that big dream, that big reality-that’s what I said-you got to take that big reality, and we got to take small steps to make it manageable to make your dreams become a reality.

Think big, dream big, but start small. That’s right, start small. Remember what I told you; start where you are, with what you have, because what you have is plenty.

In the book The Power of Habit, we read about the concept of small wins. Basically, it says that there’s power in acknowledging even little victories:

“Small wins are a steady application of one small advantage,” one Cornell professor wrote in 1984. ” Once a small win has been accomplished, forces are set in motion that favor another small win.” Small wins fuel transformative changes by leveraging tiny achievements into patterns that convince people that bigger achievements are within reach.

If you’re an amateur, be fair to yourself. Don’t measure yourself against the records of Olympians. Just do what you can today, then do a little more, and a little more after that. Keep telling yourself: “just one more push.” Then make the push, then say “just one more push” again. Gamblers tell themselves that they can quit any time they want; give yourself permission to tell your mind the exact same lie, but channel it towards a productive endeavor.

Technically, every milestone is separated by inches.

Once you realize that, you can get started.

Why More Workers Should Be Astronauts (Figuratively Speaking)

Why More Workers Should Be Astronauts (Figuratively Speaking)

The man in the clip is Robert Zubrin, a staunch advocate for the exploration of Mars. I don’t remember when I saw this video, or how exactly I stumbled upon it; all I remember is how I responded with admiration and sympathy. Here we see a man who grew up with a vision, one that was snatched away, which drove the driven man into becoming an angry man. Carrying a torch whose flame was ignited by betrayal and is sustained by discontent, he fights to regain what he sees humanity has lost: the thirst for exploration. The spirit of wonder.

And the spirit of exploration has not just been lost in the context of space exploration. We see it every day. We see it in the way we choose fast food, the easy, convenient, and readily available foodstuff, rather than discover the joys of cooking (the only way you can every truly “have it your way”, despite what a certain burger brand says). We see it in the way certain fashion brands dominate the local Philippine market, despite their pieces being obviously made for much more temperate climates.

And we see it in the way people choose jobs.

*****

A lot of us employees have lost that hunger, that almost reckless pursuit of something that we love and can be great at. “Career” has become nothing more than a buzzword, splashed onto resumes, parroted in interviews, all in the hopes of getting a job. The focus is on pay, not promise. Perhaps we are forced to compromise to survive circumstances beyond our control. But sometimes, the circumstances we currently face are not something we actually have to.

Consider the movie Interstellar. In the film’s establishing sequence, we see that humanity is in danger. The earth, its mother for so long, is starting to cross the line from “life-supporting” to “uninhabitable”. Dust storms sweep the land on a regular basis. The staple crops of mankind–wheat, potatoes, rice, and corn–all start to die in succession due to blight. The educational system is pressuring more people to become farmers rather than engineers (not to say that farming is an unimportant career choice, as the movie itself stresses). The dream of space exploration is dismissed as nothing more than a fever dream.

The story moves forward from there, leading the viewers down a path of coincidence and deduction, which concludes with the discovery that the dream is still alive. NASA is not defunct; it’s just gone underground, toiling away, in the background, as quixotic an institution as any you can imagine. On earth, humanity wages a war against extinction; while that war is fought, NASA is engineering a fallback.

And so it is with your job.

Sometimes, you just need to jump ship. Maybe the company is folding, and you can’t be around for the end. Maybe you’re not getting a high enough salary, or maybe the prospects for career growth are weak.

Or maybe it’s just not a good fit for you: you find that you have to contort yourself the cog-shape needed to make the corporate machinery run, and it’s deforming you day by day; you can’t breathe normally; you can’t stretch; you can’t stand; and you can’t stand it.

This is not to say that the automatic reaction should be to escape. Of course, there are still reasons for you to stay and persevere. You still have to fulfill your duties to the company; you cannot simply leave your co-workers hanging; and there may be clients who are counting on you to come through for them. The point is, you should be able to come to a point where you can deliberately launch yourself towards a new stage in your career, and a new opportunity for growth and exploration.

*****

Of course, not all endeavors end up successful. Not everything is in our control. Sometimes the journey doesn’t end well, and you, the explorer, are stuck in a less-than-ideal situation.

In The Martian, an astronaut is left marooned on Mars. The Red Planet is uninhabitable: no food grows there, the atmosphere cannot support life from Earth, and it seems all circumstances and conditions are conspiring to ensure that he does not survive. However,  through ingenuity and determination, he improvises, conceiving and implementing a survival strategy (growing food) and an exit strategy (reaching out to his fellow astronauts so they can rescue him). I can’t say much more about the film, since I haven’t watched it as of this writing, but that’s the gist.

So that’s what employee-astronauts should do when we end up in a company not suitable for them, but cannot leave it immediately. When they find themselves in that situation, unable to set off on a new leg of their career (whether due to a training bond, financial pressures, or something else), they must rely on our existing skills and talents. If they started their career path right, their skills and talents will be adaptable in most, if not all, of the companies they end up in.  So while you’re in a poor-fit company, make the most of it. Do a bit of terraforming where you can. Survive (and thrive, if possible).

At the same time, keep your options open. Maintain communications with fellow employee-astronauts. Eventually, when the opportunity to leave comes, one may just get a useful referral from one of them and end up in a more habitable place. Of course, as professionals, employee-astronauts should also be prepared to suggest opportunities for others. It’s all about paying it forward.

*****

One definition of career is “a job or profession that you have been trained for, and which you do for a long period of your life”. A lot of us remember that definition, and we let it shoehorn us into staying in a particular company, or a particular occupation, longer than we really should.

Another definition is “To move forward at high speed, often with minimal control”.

Which sounds more exciting?