Category Archives: Writing

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.

Photo Essay: Breaking Through Writer’s Blocks

Overcoming writer’s block, they say, is done simply by writing.

stonewall 1

It’s kind of like building a stone wall.   Pick a suitable spot, gather some material and begin putting it together, layer by layer, one block at a time.

stonewall 2

My favorite stone walls are the ones found around southern Connecticut and Westchester County, north of New York City. I especially enjoy the ones built in multiple iterations, starting with an existing rocky outcropping and then crafted by multiple authors.

stonewall 3

From the standpoint of building creative muscles, it’s better to write and write, even if you’re just filling gaps or un-doing previous work.

stonewall 4

Because even the sturdiest of stone walls will eventually begin to crumble if nothing is added to it.

stonewall 5

Break through. Write on.

(Re)capitulation

(#27 of 27, final post in the series)

After re-visiting 26 posts from last year over the past 30 days, it’s time to wrap things up. The goal of this “blog feed-forward exercise” as I described it, was threefold:

  1. Focused output
  2. Reflective practice
  3. Sheer experimentation

Stretch Goals:  You're going to feel a little pressure...

Re: 1) Definitely got the focused output  — but it took a huge effort. As usual, I was being more ambitious than I initially realized. But I got it done with only a bit of faltering… well within the acceptable parameters of self-imposed high standards.

Re: 2) Got a boatload of reflective practice, in a much deeper and rigorous way than ever before. Even when I came across an oddball post that seemed irrelevant and/or poorly executed, I was able to draw out value from it by forcing myself to revisit it in some way. This was particularly true when I considered a sequence of posts which had continuing threads or themes, but looked at them in reverse order.

Re: 3) Got a decent amount of sheer experimentation out of this exercise. However, because of the daily pace and competing personal and professional demands, I could not fully experiment as much as I would have liked. I’d love to put together a graphic map showing how each of the last 26 posts related back to the corresponding 26 posts from 2014, with icons indicating the approach taken on each pairing.  For example, in a couple of cases I re-blogged a post. In one case, I split out a post into two posts, and in another case I combined two into one.  Many of the posts were reversals, some were refutations, others were remixes or extensions. Got to play around with visual and audio elements a bit, too.

One of the biggest lessons for me was seeing what it was like to blog every single day. It had all the elements of a grind, and it often felt lonely, but I did manage to get some feedback — both online and offline — during the process. Some of my “interaction” with fellow WordPress bloggers during this time helped improve my perspective and/or validated thoughts I hadn’t yet fully articulated. For example, the essay  “Why I Write so Personally, Publicly” resonated deeply. Sinawali Clip Art WomanAt least one real world friend offered solid encouragement and insights. I now realize that I miss the dialogue and debate that I used to have in comment threads with my buddies, especially Nareg. Having bolstered my writing skills by running this mini-marathon of 27 posts, I’m now interested in slowing down the pace and delving deeper with a stronger element of conversation and co-creation.

All of this ties in neatly (of course) to the first two posts from 2014 — one of them written by me (“Rough and Refined, Filipino Style: Sinawali Eskrima”) and one ghost-written by contributor Jake Broce (“6 Tips for Making and Sticking to an Exercise Regimen”). My two biggest takeaways from this past month are:

  1. I need to keep writing on a regular basis — not necessarily daily, but more often than once per week; and
  2. I need to engage with a chavruta – a learning partner — whenever possible, to generate some creative and intellectual sparks.

As for now, it’s time to rest and recover…and take a few days off from the blog.

Onward into the rest of 2015.

Dear Internet — Six Things I Admire (and Dislike) About You

(#25 and #26 of 27 — a synthesis of two posts: one was overly ironic, one was overly vague, but both had excellent visuals)

Sandstone-PhotoEssayPepTalk-2

Dear Internet,

We’ve been together in this relationship for quite a while and let’s face it, it’s complicated.

I’m writing this letter to let you know how much appreciate everything you do for me — both the good and the bad — and what I intend to do about it.

1. You provide endless resources and support to my quest of constant learning. Sometimes this is a distraction but mostly it is a good thing. By putting undiscovered worlds of knowledge at my fingertips, you help me think and work like a polymath. As I integrate and extend my central nervous system into you, the extent of my repertoire becomes limited only by my imagination. I want to further improve the quality of my integration with you.

Instant-Learning-Gratification

2. You provide endless streams of inane and meaningless novelty and tempt me constantly with click-bait designed to rob me of my precious time and attention. This is a useless distraction. That said, nobody is immune from stodgy comfortable thinking habits and you offer a source of fresh ideas and perspectives. I will choose to see this aspect of you as just another way to keep myself young in spirit, and to keep my repertoire dynamic and relevant. But I will sip sparingly from your ocean of distracted drivel.

shark jump

3. You enable me to move and sift more quickly through vast amounts of information. In a span of mere minutes, I can go from having understanding to achieving insight, and from achieving insight to unlocking foresight. As I do this however, my mammalian pack rat habits cause me accumulate a cluttered landscape of open browser tabs on my screens and in my subconscious. I become bloated with unresolved notes and suspended ideas. This is not your problem — it’s mine. Every day I’m getting better at managing the vital balance of creative clutter and zen-like simplicity.

fat cat on couch

4. You hamper me with vast amount of misinformation and dubious content. I  can waste hours trying to sort the signal from the noise, and more of than not I just don’t bother trying. I will choose to see this as a reminder and test  to maintain my critical thinking skills, and to guard against the temptation of lazy thinking. As much as I’ve outsourced parts of my brain to the cloud, I can’t ever delegate my faculty for judgement and discernment.

liar

5. You are on all the time — 24x7x365.25 — and tempt me to be on with you. This pulls me away from being present with the people are important to me, the people who I love. Since that is unacceptable, I’ve already limited how much of my life you get to be a part of. I also ignore you for days at a stretch. In fairness, you do ask me about my friends and loved ones and even provide opportunities for me to interactive with them, but it’s on your terms and in your space. I would trust you more if you encouraged me to spend time with them in the real world. There are parts of you, Internet, that are more aligned with my interests and I will seek to connect with those parts.

maya and kristen dancingI know that we’re both still growing and evolving. Even as I’ve barely scratched the surface of your being, I see how rapidly you are changing. This is a source of inspiration and provides some of the fuel for my own continued development.

Thank you, Internet… and ttyl,

D

Silent inflection point

(#24 of 27, a calendrical inflection point)

Exactly one year ago yesterday was the date of the post I’m revisiting now: “How to Have More Engaging Conference Calls -::- Four Lessons from Morning Radio Shows.” That post provided tips on improving webinars and conference calls by using some of the principles of morning show producers and deejays, the main principle being, “no dead air.”  Keep talking, keep making noise.

Last night a friend asked me for my opinion on silence in a live facilitated conversation setting. They wanted to know “how long is too long,” and how to break the silence of “deal air” once a certain threshold of quiet pause had been reached.  If I said I wasn’t tempted to say nothing until he answered his own question, I would be lying.

Baby Bjorn at Gooseberry Falls Lake Superior

I love silence. I thrive on silence. I come from a long line of “strong silent types,” aka, action-oriented introverts on my dad’s side.

On my mom’s side, not as much… over there it’s more about hyperactive ideation, grandiose visions and massive amounts of detail, all combined together in a warm delicious Toastmaster wrap.

Lately I’ve been anything but silent, playing more to my mitochondrial RNA with day after day of verbose blog posts, ponderings and pronouncements. I’ve been building my writing muscles, for sure, but must admit to looking forward to the rest-and-recover phase of this exercise regimen.

Just a few more days to go.

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