Don’t Wait. The Time Will Never Be Perfect

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I’m going to pursue my dream career as soon as I have these school loans paid off.

I’ll really focus on my career once we buy a house and start building equity rather than throwing money away on rent.

I’ll chase my dream once the kids are in school and we don’t have to pay for daycare.

Maybe I’ll retire early when the kids finish college and start a second career in my real passion.

This fact pattern plays out over and over. People keep putting off doing what they really want to do because they are waiting for the perfect time to pull the trigger on a major change. But then before they know it life has passed them by and their chance to make the kind of life they really want is gone.

Don’t let that be you. Don’t wait to pursue the career you truly feel passionate about. The time will never be perfect. It will always feel like there are too many bills and too little time. That is just how life is. Take some life advice from an old sneaker commercial and Just Do It.

Now I’ not saying to be irresponsible. I don’t want someone to quite their job tomorrow and join clown college because I said to chase your dreams. The dreams I’m talking about are the kind that make professional sense. If you are currently an engineering project manager for a car company, but you’ve always wanted to be a professional volleyball player, well, then maybe you should look into an adult club you can join rather than quitting your job and trying to make the professional circuit.

But, if you have a passion for space and astronomy then maybe it is time to start taking the necessary steps to move your engineering career from cars to NASA. That is a huge and intimidating step to take if you have a solid career going in the automotive industry. However, if your passion lies elsewhere this is the kind of gamble that makes sense to take. That is the kind of dream career we’re talking about.

There will never be a perfect time to make the jump, but if you are prepared, do your homework, and play it smart, you can do it. For instance, if your passion is to be a novelist, you don’t need to quit your job, you just need to reorganize your life around that goal. Make the commitment to stop watching The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones and instead spend a few hours each night working on your book.

Pursue your dream, but be smart about it.

The Robots are Coming!

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If you keep up with the latest jobs-of-the-future news like I do it has been hard to miss the breathless commentary around AI and how many jobs it will soon eliminate. But before we all become preppers and await the Skynet apocalypse let’s take a step back and realize this is nothing new.

We commonly hear that Machine Learning is an emerging tech field as if it has sprung whole-cloth overnight. But the truth is that it has been slowly creeping up in plain sight for over a half century.

  • Logistic regression — 1958
  • Hidden Markov Model — 1960
  • Support Vector Machine — 1963
  • k-nearest neighbors — 1967
  • Artificial Neural Networks — 1975
  • Decision tree — 1986
  • Q-learning — 1989
  • Random forest — 1995

For many in the press the logic seems to be something along the lines of “if the general job-seeking public didn’t care about something important their whole lives, but care now, then it has to be emerging.”

Machine learning computer systems, which have a long and storied history are getting better all the time. And yes, they are poised to transform the economy just like steam engines or electricity did in the Victorian era. But while they can outperform humans in many tasks, they are unlikely to replace people in all jobs. We need to evolve along with our technology, just as we have always done.

So how do we do that? By making a long-term commitment to learning and skill diversification. AI is probably going to create as many opportunities as it will eliminate, at least in the foreseeable future. Our job is to keep apace with the changing workplace dynamic, and the best way to do that is an emphasis on development.

Companies are starting to realize this and are putting money and resources into play. One examples is Amazon’s Career Choice program, which encourages employees to learn skills for future employment. There are also more general online learning centers like CourseraCodeacademyBig Data University and Microsoft’s edX.

While each of these is still a work in progress, they do point the way forward. Education can no longer stop at 22 with the achievement of a diploma from a 4-year college. It needs to be a life long pursuit.

Luckily, there is an easy way to stay current on the latest trends and even get a bit ahead of the curve.  And it doesn’t have to become like going to college all over again. Reading within your discipline can be easy and painless if you can just have a little discipline around the idea.

The average person can read about 15 pages in 20 minutes. That means if you just read 20 minutes a day, 5 days a week, you could read an typical 350 page book in just 28 days. In other words it would not be too difficult to make your way through a “work book” every month. All you have to do is find 20 minutes a day and you can be prepared for whatever the machines have coming our way.

But just in case the robot apocalypse really does happen, this should cover it.

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This post first appeared in rough form on my newsletter, Career in the Balance. If you want to see me think out loud about the future of work and what it could mean for your career, you can subscribe here.

Book Review: The Water Knife

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The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi is a near-future story set in the American Southwest where states and cities battle each other for pieces of the Colorado River. In this realistic future the “water knife” is the black op professional who makes sure sumptuous arcologies can bloom in the desert, so the rich can drink, while the poor get nothing but dust.

I love the concept, and the realism with which Bacigalupi paints this world is frightening. It is not hard to imagine a United States where water has become the prime resource people fight over since this is the current reality for many nations below the equator. Man made or not, the world is warming, and while here in New England that may just mean shorter winters, in the drought-prone Southwest the consequences could be tragic.

The overarching thematics of the novel are compelling, but Bacigalupi is at his best when he has his characters get introspective about their plight. In fact, some of his writing is downright prescient.

If I could put my finger on the moment we genuinely f**ked ourselves, it was the moment we decided that data was something you could use words like believe or disbelieve around.

It is hard not to read this line without thinking of our current state of affairs. Many of us have a love/hate relationship with data. When it is used by managers to control professionals, it can create a tension between the managers who want to measure performance, and the ethos of the workers, who want to be treated as professionals.  Either way, data is a day-to-day reality of our jobs. Yet in the world of politics data has become fungible.

Bacigalupi’s water knife has his finger on the pulse of our current situation. This is realistic fiction at its strongest.

However, this realism also hurts the book. This is a tale of a broken world with very broken characters who think little of stabbing each other in the back to stay alive. “Some people had to bleed so other people could drink. Simple as that.” I get it, but it doesn’t make for very sympathetic characters. In the end I found it hard to root for any of them.

So I liked the book, but definitely had mixed feelings. As readers I think we are willing and able to imagine the worst of our world, but as individuals we need to believe our humanity won’t be entirely lost in the process.

Stop Looking for Perfect

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Stop Looking for Perfect
When we are young, we dream of what our lives will become. We see our careers as a straight line on progressive advancement with each job complete with a boss who nurtures our potential and co-workers who both recognize and respect our talents. We see a spouse and a couple of healthy kids living in a nice house in the suburbs. We see weekends that look more like beer commercials than real life.

This fantasy future we see is completely understandable given what our culture feeds us pretty much from birth, but of course once we get a few years under our belt we come to realize the life that TV and the rest of the media fed us from childhood wasn’t exactly true.

There are two paths we can take once this realization hits. One path is bitterness and disappointment, and it is a very appealing path when we feel like life has not lived up to our expectations for it. When our career track looks more like a scatter-plot graph than a straight line headed north we look for people to blame- bosses who were intimidated by our talents, co workers who stole credit, an economy that simply did not reward achievement. When our family life hits the inevitable pitfalls of life we can blame our spouse.

This path leads to a life that is never good enough and always lacking. Clearly, this isn’t the way we want to go.

The second path we can take once we realize that life is not a Hallmark movie is acceptance with purpose. The world is not perfect and neither is mankind, and because of this life will always be something of a roller-coaster ride. But as the philosopher Josef Pieper said, ” he alone can do good who knows what things are like and what their situation is.” Acknowledge the world and your place in it- and then get to work making your corner of it better.

It is tempting to look for perfect. Sometimes it almost feels like we deserve it. But perfect doesn’t exist, and the sooner we can accept that, the sooner we can learn to appreciate what life is- pretty darn amazing. Would we like a well-paying job in a company that rewards hard work and is loyal to its workers that we can stay in for 25 years? Of course. But remember that “work” as we think of it today is a pretty new concept. Historically most people slaved away on small patches of land to scrape out a living, constantly worrying of they could feed their family. Would we like the perfect home with the white picket fence and a weed free, gloriously green yard? Sure! But I’ll take my slightly run down 120 year old house with no yard to speak of over living in the tenement housing many of my ancestors did when they first came to this country.

Accepting the world as it is doesn’t mean settling; it means looking at life objectively for what it is and realizing that it really is pretty good. When we can see that it is so much easier to get back in the trenches and do the work we were meant to do and make the world just a little bit better.

What does a daily ritual for jobseekers look like?

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What does a daily ritual for jobseekers look like?
Earlier this year I talked at length about why’d you’d want to create a daily ritual, but I did not spell out exactly what one would look like. Hopefully I have convinced you of the former as I am about to deliver the latter. Here are a few different ways to go about building a daily ritual. Just note that these are only ideas to get you started- this is a very personal activity which will look different for everyone.

To me, a good daily ritual should incorporate activities that hit all the major aspects of one’s well-being, the physical, mental and spiritual. It is only when all three are giving their own space to grow that someone can truly thrive. How you jigsaw the pieces together is largely personal preference.

Physical. I don’t think I need to point out the thousands of studies linking physical health to mental health. We all know about the endorphin release you get from moving your body and how physical activity can allow the brain to work out problems it has been wrestling with. Movement is good- we just need to build a daily ritual of doing it.

You could choose to start every day with something as simple as a walk around your neighborhood (after a cup of coffee of course). Or perhaps you are more incline to take a daily jog. Or maybe you really want to challenge yourself and you take the 100 burpee-a-day challenge. What you chose for your physical ritual is not as important as doing it every day, at the same time of the day. Make it how you do mornings.

Mental. Jobseeking is a mentally draining task as it is very repetitive. You have to take the same steps, day after day to achieve the results you want. Research the job and company. Make some connections. Tailor your documents and apply. Then do it again. And again. You get the idea. If you don’t build some intellectual enrichment onto your day you will begin to feel the weight of this repetitive schedule. While you could of course enroll in a class, this article is for jobseekers, who could very likely be out of work, so I am aiming for no cost activities. (This is why I did not mention joining a gym above). Luckily there is a completely no cost solution to the mental aspect of your daily ritual as well- the library.

Put aside a period of time each day where you simply read something that will benefit you down the road once you land your new job. I’d suggest doing this sometime around mid-day so that it can act as a break as well as a recharge for your brain after a morning spend scouring LinkedIn or The Ladders. Not sure what to read? Just type your job title into Amazon and see what comes up. I guarantee they’ll be plenty of books to choose from. Write down ten titles and then go to your local library and see what you can find.

Spiritual. It is hard to set up a daily ritual without paying attention to one’s spiritual nature. This will of course look different depending on the spiritual tradition to which each person belongs. But again, the important part is doing the same type of activity every day at the same time. Whether you chose to read the Bible, pray, or simply meditate on a positive affirmation is up to you.

Putting it all together. So what does a fully functioning daily ritual look like for a job seeker? Here is a sample that revolves around reading and walking. If this looks interesting to you give it a try for a week. Take it for test drive. Once you get the feel of it make your own adjustments. Make it your daily ritual.

Early mornings: Wake up before the rest of the house and simply sit with a cup of coffee. Don’t check the phone or turn on the tv- just sit for ten minutes and think about what you have to be grateful for. Start the day off by feeling positive about your situation. Being out of work isn’t the worst thing that can happen to you.

Then pick up a career book and read for ten minutes. When you’re finished jot down a few notes/thoughts in a notebook. Not on a computer- just a simple spiral notebook. Then throw on some shoes and go for a twenty-minute walk around the neighborhood. Don’t feel like you need to keep up a certain pace or go a certain distance, this is just about waking up your body in the morning.

Mid mornings: This is when you’ll do your daily research. Scan the job boards. Look up companies. Find connections. Post and comment on LinkedIn. Do your due diligence. Then chose one job opening to target in the afternoon.

Noontime: After you have finished lunch it is time to reset. Go back to your chosen professional development book and read for another ten minutes or so. Then, take another short twenty minute walk around the neighborhood.

Afternoons: Now go back to the job you have targeted for today and spend some time reworking your resume and cover letter so that they are tailored directly to this position. Try to send a copy directly to a connection you have found within the company. If you can’t make a direct inroad, try a “friend of a friend” route. And as a last resort you can apply directly through the job board. Just remember to make the resume ATS friendly if you have to send it this way.

Close out the work day with another ten minutes reading your chosen book. Be sure to jot down your thoughts quickly after each reading session. This helps cerement any lessons you learn along the way into your brain and it also gives you something to look back on.

Night: Just be done. Do no “jobsearch” work after 4:00 PM. It is important to have a dedicated work time and off time. Know that you made solid progress during the day and that you’ll pick it up again tomorrow. Now just enjoy yourself. Spend time with your family, eat a good dinner, catch up with your Netflix queue.

Making the Most of Mondays

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It’s a tired and old cliche that everyone hates Mondays. No one particularly likes when that alarm goes off after a couple days of being able to sleep in. No one loves their commute to work. And most people would rather be fishing, on a beach, playing tennis or just on the couch with Netflix than pulling up to their desk on Monday mornings.

I’ve always had mixed feelings about this cliche. On the one hand I get it. The weekend is often more fun. You have more freedom and time to yourself. But on the other hand, if you have chosen the right career path, then you shouldn’t wake up on Monday already looking for Friday. For the most part I have always enjoyed my profession and while some Mondays I’d love to hit the snooze button a few more times I have always generally been OK with the start of the work week.

But I’ll let you in on a secret- there is more to making the most of Mondays than just liking your job. There are concrete steps you can take to improve the start of your work week. I call it the 3 looks, and all you’ll need is notebook*, a pen, 10 minutes and a cup of coffee. (The coffee is optional- OK who am I kidding, the coffee may be the most important part of Monday morning!)

Look Back: Think back on last week and ask yourself a few questions. Who did you help and how? What was your biggest “win”? What would you do a little differently? Jot down your thoughts in your notebook. This is key, the actual writing. Don;t just ruminate and don’t type it up in a journal app. You need to actually put pen to paper. Why? I’m not really sure, but science says things we physically write down stay with us more, and for me these kinds of introspective exercises have always gone better when I have had pen in hand.

Look Forward: Be careful with this one. The idea is to think about the biggest goals for the week, but you don’t want this to turn into a scheduling or to-do list activity. Think about sitting down to do this same exercise next week; what do you want your biggest win to be? That is what you want to look forward to. What are the big rocks you know you need to deal with and deal with well?

Look In: This helps on those really hard Mondays when you just don’t want to go to the office. Remember why you started. Now I can hear you in my head already, I started to get a good paycheck. Yes, I know, but that isn’t what I’m talking about. (And should I be worried that I can hear you in my head?). There are a lot of ways to make money; why did you chose your way? Are you in sales because you really do enjoy interacting with people? Are you a project manager because you love getting a team motivated and working towards a common goal? Maybe you’re a programmer because even as a kid you loved puzzle games and you simply enjoy the mental gymnastics required to tease out answers to tricky problems. Remember what motivated you when you were 22.

Now, I can’t guarantee you’ll jump out of bed every Monday morning looking to take over the world, but I can promise that if you do this short exercise every Monday morning that you’ll get to work with a more positive outlook and you just may have a more productive well too.

* A note on notebooks. Yes, I know the newest Moleskin is gorgeous and the paper is amazing to write on. But you know what, the $1 spiral notebook from OfficeMax records your words just as well. Don’t fall in the live with the tools. Fall in love with the work.

Your Mistakes Do Not Define You

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Everyone makes mistakes. It is part of being human. Sometime they are simple, small and relatively inconsequential. Other times they are big and fairly monumental. We make them when we are young, and despite the acquired wisdom of age, we make them when we are old. Regardless, your mistakes do not define who you are; how you react to them does.

Some people let the weight of their errors drag them down. They can not see past them, can’t seem to forgive themselves and move on. They relive them, and feel the guilt like an anchor holding them in port, unable to sail on. You don’t want to be one of these people. Their reaction to a mistake compounds the error. If you have made a misstep, whether it be on the job or with your family, the best thing to do is to own it, try to learn from it, and then let it go.

Own it. If an apology is appropriate, then apologize. Don’t try to hide it, pretend it didn’t happen or pass the buck to someone else. If you lost an account because you forgot to write the meeting into your schedule, just own up to the fact that your screwed up. There are few people if approached sincerely who will not forgive a truly contrite person. And to be honest, those who won’t are probably not people you want to be around anyway.

Learn from it. It is cliche, but it is true: everyone makes mistakes, just don’t make the same one twice. Every time we make a misstep there is an opportunity to learn something, to become a better person tomorrow than we were today. To stick with our example from above, maybe now you realize that your fancy scheduling and note taking app on your phone looks great, but is too awkward to really use on a day-to-day basis. In order to not miss any future meetings you need to go back to pen and paper. If your apology is coupled with a lesson learned and a plan not to repeat the error, most people will see that as an overall positive.

Let it go. I know, I’m singing it in my head now too– but it’s true. If we hold on to every time we make a mistake it is going to be a lead weight around our necks. Life is too short to do that to yourself, and besides, rehashing the event over and over doesn’t lead to anything positive. It just makes you feel lousy. If you have owned it, and learned something from it, there is nothing left for that error of judgement to do. It can only be a negative at this point, so just let it go and move on.

Remember, you mistakes will never define you, but your reactions to them will. Own them, learn from them and then let them go. You’ll be a better co-worker, family member and human being for the effort.