Category Archives: Talent

Adam Grant: A Giver and an Original… and a Generalist?

Adam Grant OriginalsAdam Grant’s new book is coming out this month and it already looks like a best seller… and not just because of the amazing marketing machine that is already in place.  This guy is on fire.
Grant’s style combines the rigor of research with a semi-autobiographical tone that is compelling and enlightening. On a more personal level, Grant is teaching me important lessons in my exploration of the generalist mindset and how it relates to patterns of success or failure in the contemporary economy.

 

Adam Grant Give and TakeHis previous book, Give and Take  looked at different reciprocity styles and strategies.  His new book, Originals  discusses themes of creativity and nonconformity… with perhaps a dash of novelty-seeking / openness-to-experience traits. Grant is plumbing the depths of under-appreciated aspects of human personality — more technical details on that below.

Givers in a Taker’s World, Generalists in a Specialist’s World

Adam Grant is a Giver, an Original, and a Generalist.  He seems to live the values (and struggles) of the Givers he describes in his earlier book, and very likely, exhibits many of the tendencies of the Originals showcased in his new book. Certainly the being a magician part. He also seems to characterize the mindset and skillset of a highly successful generalist.

Back in late 2008, during the long tail of the global financial crisis, I was talking to an investment banker named Fred.  I told him I was researching the subject of “the relative career success of generalists versus specialists” in a world of hyper-specialization and rapid change (a long-standing fascination – nay, obsession — of mine).

Here’s what Fred said:

“Yes, we live in a hyperspecialist age, but as a result, generalists can be overpaid or underpaid.”

Fred elaborated that there are circumstances where it’s not good to be a specialist. He asserted that being a generalist is a matter of disposition… and therefore inescapable. He later noted that having a generalist mindset can also be the result of one’s education style.

Fred’s language of “overpaid or underpaid” struck a chord in me at the time.

What separates unsuccessful generalists from successful generalists?  Especially in an economy that seeks to perfectly compensate “perfect fit” specialists for each and every function?

Another way of phrasing the question: What’s the difference between a wannabe Malcolm Gladwell from an actual Malcolm Gladwell?

…apart from Outlier circumstances and the embracing of a specialty (aka the 10,000 hour rule)?

Short answer:  It’s about having the right mix of Conscientiousness and Openness to Experience.

Longer answer:  It’s kind of like Adam Grant’s successful versus unsuccessful Givers… and very likely something to do with his Originals.

Personal Tendencies + Adaptive Strategies

In Givers & Takers, after giving props to Robert Benchley and his Law of Distinction, Grant proceeds to define a proposed “reciprocity style” spectrum between “giving” and “taking,” with “matching” somewhere in between.   He then goes on to show how the Givers occupy the bottom and the top of the career ladder.

Grant notes that while Givers at the bottom get walked over, there are a few things they can do to enable themselves to make it to the top without sacrificing their natural tendency to give. As they approach the top of the ladder, people will tend to root for them and push them even higher.  Structurally this resembles the following:

(values-or-temperament-based trait) + (skill-based behavior) = (outcome)

or

PERSONALITY + STRATEGY = WIN

Thank you Adam.    This potentially answers my conundrum about generalists vs. specialists which Fred characterized as “overpaid or underpaid.”

It’s more than just luck, circumstances, talent or IQ. My hypothesis is that, just like Grant’s Givers, generalists have a temperament at keeps them at the bottom due to the often unforgiving nature of business.

However, generalists can also occupy the top tier of organizations, especially when they adopt the right strategies and develop certain skills.  Also, part of it is about moving across the generalist-specialist spectrum and becoming an Eclectic.

I suspect some of the winning skills and strategies for generalists will be mentioned in Grant’s about-to-be released book, Originals. I also suspect that his notion of an “Original” may be a closely related concept to my beloved “Eclectic” type. We shall see.

Finally, according to some personality research studies there is a troubled relationship between high Conscientiousness and high Openness-to-Experience.  My view is that learning to turn on or off obsessive focus by pairing it (or decoupling it, as needed) with distracted curiosity is the key to building an eclectic and useful portfolio of expertise.

For those who identify with being an Original, an Eclectic, an Eccentric, or even just a run-of-the-mill Creative, understanding and mitigating these personality and behavioral distinctions can make all the difference between frustration and fulfillment.

 Adam Grant vs. the BFF (Big Five Factors)

From a bigger picture perspective, Grant is a high functioning generalist who is exploring a series of under-appreciated aspects of human personality.

To phrase it in Five Factor Model of human personality terms, his first book  and related stories of “Powerless Communication” describe behavioral strategies characterized by high levels of Agreeableness. His recent New York Times article, “Why I Taught Myself to Procrastinate,”(cf.  wandering and letting things stew), draws out the relative merits of low Conscientiousness… and provides a direct lead-in to his new book that pokes around some corners of the domain of Openness to Experience.

As of this moment, Adam Grant’s marketing bio says he “specializes in building productive cultures of generosity and originality.” Let’s wait and see his niche expand further. Will the book he writes in about 2-3 years shine a light into the adaptive goldmines of low Extroversion and high Neuroticism? Or have those mountains been stripped bare already by others? Only time will tell.

In the meantime, it’s wonderful to read and be inspired by this arch-generalist who has mastered and braided for himself an eclectic and intertwining set of skills, interests and domains of expertise.

Creative Space

“So you see, imagination needs moodling – long, inefficient, happy idling, dawdling and puttering.”

Brenda Ueland

Timna Spiral Hill Approach

In most endeavors, the main differentiator is creativity. Creativity requires that we — at least once in a while — no really, please — can we just — yes, there you go — relax.

Timna Mushroom Sandstone

When to relax?

  • When we’re doing the same thing and getting tired of it.
  • When we get tired of doing that thing before even starting it.
  • When we notice that too many other people are doing that thing now and doing it in an almost formulaic manner.

We may notice that doing that thing — that thing which once seemed meaningful and special — suddenly seems rote and ordinary. The groove is so deeply ingrained, so predetermined and obvious, that we cannot tolerate moving along within it.

The only thing worse than being caught in your own rut is to be caught in someone else’s rut.

Timna Copper Mine Shaft

When we notice that rut, it’s a clue that it’s time for us to put down our pen/pencil/paintbrush/pixel-pushing device and go for a walk. Off course, of course.

Take a leisurely stroll through open space and unprogrammed time.

Wander in the wilderness and glance across at other seekers along the way.

Timna Voyeurs and Poseurs

Making the most of your MTA (Money, Time & Attention)

Every day we’re issued an “MTA” ticket – a ticket that allows us to earn and spend three precious commodities: money, time and attention.

Everything we have – and everything we have to give to others – boils down to one or more of those ultimate resources.

How can we get (and also, provide others with) the best possible ride for our MTA ticket?

MTA - NYC subway station


Last year I looked at the “good problem to have” of having too much to do, time allocation being a recurring theme of this blog (e.g.. this post here… and this one here among others).  Now as I cycle back over last year’s posts, in this post (#15 out of 27) I’d like to take a stab at things from a slightly wider and more structured perspective.

The inspiration for this post comes from Thales Teixeira, Assistant Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, who was quoted in a recent New Yorker article as follows:

“There are three major fungible resources that we as individuals have. The first is money, the second is time, and the third is attention. Attention is the least explored.”

– Thales Teixeira

I’d add that, in addition to being the least explored, attention is the most real of those three resources.  Money and time are abstractions used to explain aspects of human reality. Attention is arguably, all by itself, human reality.

But never mind the philosophy. Let’s keep things practical and look at how each of those resources work for us:

Earn Money.

Like math, money is not a real thing but nevertheless is incredibly well understood, documented and learnable. In fact, when a superior understanding of money and mathematics are put together, the resulting combination can move mountains. Yes, actual mountains.

To be effective in most endeavors, we as individuals must have a basic facility with money. The following simple diagram provides a good starting point, whether you’re looking to earn for yourself or contribute to others:

Earn Money

It’s a simple diagram, but how well do you manage it?  Here are just a few of the questions you can ask yourself:

  • How can you improve the quality of your income, both actively and passively?
  • How can you maximize the quality of your purchasing power, both fixed and variable?
  • How can you best develop, invest and/or diversify your assets?
  • How can you best manage, reduce and/or leverage your debt?

Making money is easy… if that’s all you want to do.

In fact, I recommend that every person spend a chunk of their life focused primarily on making money. Those who know me may think this a strange statement coming from a guy whose message is often about being mindful, being grounded in reality and having sense of higher purpose, but, um, yeah… just go ahead and do it. Make money.

Feel what it’s like to be the off-the-boat immigrant with nothing but the shirt on your back.  See what’s it’s like to be the hyper-caffeinated Wall Street investment banker. Listen to the impatient voice of your inner entrepreneur. Walk in the shoes of Ecclesiastes or Siddhartha, who in their seeking of Ultimate Truth spent some years accumulating riches, appreciating the goodness of material existence and also facing squarely into its limitations.

As you devote yourself to concentrated efforts of financial gain, just be sure of three things:  Keep it legal, keep it ethical, and save up enough money to pay for all the therapist bills that will come later.

Pro-tip: Of all the ways to generate wealth, one of the surest strategies is to leverage time, especially other’s people’s time. Which brings us to the next resource:

Make Time.

There are innumerable ways of looking at and conceptualizing time.  Since this is a topic that I touch on a lot, for the purposes of this post I’m just going to focus on two simple aspects of time:  Quality and Duration.

My definition of “Quality” here will be based on whatever you choose to value. Good quality time means you’re getting what you value.  Poor quality time means you’re not getting it, or even worse, getting the opposite of what you value.  “Making time for yourself” implies an effort to experience quality time.

As for “Duration,” I’m referring to the standard units of time that we typically anticipate or reflect upon, e.g. minutes, mornings, evenings, days, nights, weekends, weeks, months, quarters, and so on. On the short end there are micro-moments, which may only last a fraction of a second. On the long end there is a lifetime, which is an accumulated impression of innumerable micro-moments, as well as a good number of days, decades, and life stages.

Here’s the graph:

Make Time

My current theory of Quality Time:  For any given person within a population, the quality of time that they experience has greater variability on the shorter and longer time frames. Some people are masters of making even the smallest moments (“micro-moments”) matter, whereas other fail miserably at those little moments.  The same is true over the long haul, the span of a lifetime — there is a great deal of variation in how effectively people anticipate and reflect on the “bigger picture” of their lives.  However, where people tend to average out in their experience of time is in that middle range of multiple years or decades.

The implication of this theory is that we have more to gain by getting better at how we think about the shorter and longer time spans, how we control our focus, how we detach from the things that don’t matter, how we apply ourselves to the things that do matter, etc. The other implication is not to sweat the mid-sized spans too much as they’ll tend to average out based on whatever milieu we happen to be in.  Also – and paradoxically – the less we worry about those mid-sized spans, the better they will tend to be.

I’ll have to come back to this idea at some point.  My time is currently being crunched by self-imposed deadline of getting this blog post done today.

Which brings us to the most real and yet most fleeting resource of them all…

Pay Attention.

If life is wave, then our material experience (aka, inputs/outputs of money) is the tip of that wave… and we surf that wave with varying degrees of success at different times. However the force driving that wave – the animal spirit driving all of our micro-moments and fleeting fortunes – is our attention.

This is how our attention is configured:

Pay Attention

Thales Teixeira and others are spending a tremendous amount of money, time and attention trying to figure out how to capture our attention in order to get us to spend our time and money on advertiser’s products.   They are working on elaborate theories to modify the environment that fills our ambient awareness, in order to direct our conscious focus and unconscious anchors.

In his HBS working paper, “The Rising Cost of Consumer Attention: Why You Should
Care, and What You Can Do about It,”  Teixeira advises marketers to modify their advertising approach based on the level of focus vs. distraction in a given audience.

He calls it the Attention‐contingent Advertising Strategy (ACAS) and provides the following diagram in his paper:

Teixeira-Attention‐contingent Advertising Strategy-ACAS

Seeing this makes me want to reverse-engineer it to provide us “consumers” a strategy for becoming something more than just “consumers,” i.e. to become individuals capable of enjoying meaningful experiences and becoming better “producers,” aka, life contributors.

What I’d like to do is turn Teixeira’s ACAS into a BCAS (Being Carefully Attentive Strategy), factoring in my earlier diagram and outlining strategies for its three areas of concern:  Where we put our conscious focus, what we allow into our ambient awareness (e.g. the environment and people we surround ourselves with), and how we direct our unconscious mind.

As an example, having now explored the Money-Time-Attention triad and having looked at a few simple sub-structures of those concepts, I’m going to park these musing into my unconscious mind so it can go to work on it at its own pace.  My conscious mind is closing all the open browser tabs I’ve got around these topics, making a mental note to re-read this post at some later date, and is moving on to my next task.

In other words, “to be continued.”

A Mountain of Inspirational Quotations

“People often say that motivation doesn’t last. Well, neither does bathing – that’s why we recommend it daily.”
– Zig Ziglar

This post (#4 of 27) concisely and more elegantly revisits ideas laid out in a TL;DR-worthy post entitled: “Situational self-leadership: Raising the ceiling and floor of performance.”

In a nutshell:  The literature and practice of self-motivation consists of multiple and seemingly contradictory messages that we’re supposed to tell ourselves. While there is truth in all of these messages, there’s an art to knowing which message is most useful for any given situation.

In the last post I organized the different messages of motivation using a graph.  That was all right.

In this post I’m going to organize the different messages of motivation using a collage of famous people. This will be better.*

(* better for three reasons: more concise, more memorable, and doesn’t look like it’s pretending to be science.) 

Here’s the earlier graph:

Situational Self-Leadership and Motivation Model

Here’s the collage version:

Situational Motivators

What follows below is the names of the people in the image, along with some quotes from them.  These are people whose personas we can channel and whose message we can tell ourselves at different moments in our lives.

Identifying with an ideal vision: Muhammad Ali

“The person with no imagination has no wings.”

“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.”

Striving for a personal best: Oprah Winfrey

“I’ve come to believe that each of us has a personal calling that’s as unique as a fingerprint – and that the best way to succeed is to discover what you love and then find a way to offer it to others in the form of service, working hard, and also allowing the energy of the universe to lead you.”

Building on a strong performance: Madonna Ciccone

“I’m tough, ambitious, and I know exactly what I want.”

“One thing I’ve learned is that I’m not the owner of my talent; I’m the manager of it.”

Working through a mediocre moment: Paul Brown

“Football is a game of errors. The team that makes the fewest errors in a game usually wins.”

“When you win, say nothing. When you lose, say less.”

Overcoming a weak performance: Winston Churchill

“If you’re going through hell, keep going.”

Persevering through a personal worst: Helen Keller

“We could never learn to be brave and patient, if there were only joy in the world.”

“Keep your face to the sunshine and you cannot see a shadow.”

Maintaining dignity, even at rock bottom: Viktor Frankl

“The last of human freedoms – the ability to chose one’s attitude in a given set of circumstances.”

“When we are no longer able to change a situation – we are challenged to change ourselves.”

In summary

“The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.”

– Lao Tzu

…and don’t forget…

“If you obey all the rules you miss all the fun.”

– Katherine Hepburn

Coffee, Chocolate and Love Songs: Mindfulness for the Cynic

When we were teenagers (assuming you the reader are not currently a teenager or a preteen), we often experienced music in a peculiarly personal way. Listening to a given song, it might seem like it was composed JUST FOR US and that whoever wrote the song UNDERSTOOD US PERFECTLY, UNLIKE EVERYBODY ELSE.

This perception magnified whatever feelings we already had, especially when we were smitten by a girl/boy… or angry at our parents/friends… or feeling excited about an upcoming competition/performance… or experiencing any other part of that angsty roller coaster ride known as adolescence.

iPhone HeadphonesFor those of us who aren’t teenagers anymore, we’ve moved on from having that experience… okay, well, most of us have moved on… most of the time. For my part, I can still get pumped up by a song here and yanked down by a song there, however I recognize that these songs are entirely manufactured, carefully crafted to create predictable emotional effects. Take a tiny spark of genuine artistic pathos, inject it into words alluding to some form of unrequited love (which is really just a fancier term for plain ‘ol love), throw it all onto a 4-chord progression [ I-V-vi-IV ], give a little twist of something different and new, and presto!  Our reticular activating system (RAS) will take care of the rest.

And yet, even while knowing all this, I refuse to be cynical.

The song may be manufactured, but I am not manufactured.

My RAS may be looking for familiar patterns within a vaguely-worded poem written by a stranger, but my RAS is pattern matching against me, or rather, some aspect of myself that I (may) want to bring to the forefront of my consciousness.

Better living through chemistry

cupajoeIt’s the same thing with coffee and chocolate. Those are manufactured goods with the chemical triggers of caffeine and anandamide (one of the main active ingredients of chocolate, named after the Sanskrit word for bliss) which can change our mood and mental focus.

However, to write off their effects as mere chemistry is to miss the point:  As triggers, coffee and chocolate magnify something that is already there within us, a latent potential.

Better chemistry through living

empty gym on New Year's Eve - a space between resolutionsIt’s not just music, coffee and chocolate. We can experience a change of emotional state just by focusing our thoughts or actions. Certain activities have predictable effects not unlike coffee or chocolate: cardiovascular exercise, socializing, sex, learning, playing and gift-giving are just a few examples of voluntary activities that can generate feelings of well-being, exhilaration and connection.
In contrast to chocolate and coffee, many of us assign greater value to emotional triggers that require high levels of effort and personal investment.

However a deeply cynical person can dismiss any emotional experience as the contrived effects of a prior stimulus, whether it’s a love song, a shot of bourbon or a 5k run. The unrepentant cynic is a former idealist who got hurt, someone who will happily focus on proximal causes and superficial effects. It’s just easier that way.

Yet all of us are susceptible to a kind of cynicism engendered by logical explanations and scientific knowledge. The understanding of, “I feel like y because I just experienced x,” presents us with a decision, a follow-up question of, “So what?”

So what?

“So what” is a question about significance and consequence.

How we answer the question of “so what” determines a lot.

A weak answer to “so what” can put us onto a path towards alienated cynicism, or send us floating down a river of meaningless gluttony, or drive us up a precipice of terrified asceticism, or have us rotating between all three of those places.

A strong answer to “so what” brings heightened awareness and mindfulness. The more mindful we are of the emotional triggers and our (initial) reactions, the more we can fine tune our experiences and responses, maximizing meaning, purpose and satisfaction. It also helps to develop good taste.

Yes, coffee helps me wake up… but a hot shower does the trick too… and exceptional coffee trumps mediocre coffee… and white chocolate is an abomination (just sayin’). When I give a gift, I give it with both hands and make eye contact. I look, listen, touch, smell and savor the details of these things. I dial down the frightened rationalist living in my brain, and I tune in to the wisdom of my heart.

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