A Large Collection of Miniskills

A Large Collection of Miniskills

I  really like the way that Daniel Kahneman describes expertise in his book Thinking Fast and Slow. His description is incredibly meaningful today, in a world where so many of us work in offices and perform knowledge world. Expertise is important, but it is a bit nebulous when you think about knowledge work expertise compared to craftsmanship expertise. Nevertheless, a good concept of what expertise is can be helpful when thinking about personal growth and success.

 

Kahneman writes, “The acquisition of expertise in complex tasks such as high-level chess, professional basketball, or firefighting is intricate and slow because expertise in a domain is not a single skill but rather a large collection of miniskills.” By thinking about expertise as a large collection of miniskills it becomes more understandable and meaningful, even in the context of knowledge work. For sports, many crafts, and even physical labor, expertise as a collection of miniskills is so obvious it is almost invisible. But for knowledge work, expertise as a collection of miniskills is invisible because it is not obvious or ubiquitous.

 

The image coming to mind for me when I think of expertise as a series of miniskills is iron forging or glasswork. It is clear that one must have a lot of different skills ranging from skills related to noticing subtle changes in materials as heat is applied to physical skills involved in shaping the material once it is at a certain temperature. One also has to have imaginative skills in order to see the shape and design that one wants, and be able to connect the right twists, bends, and physical manipulations to the object to match the mental image. Forging a knife or making a glass marble requires a lot of skills in related but different spheres in order to make one final product. It is obvious that one needs a lot of miniskills to be successful, but unless we enroll in a beginners class, we don’t necessarily think about all the miniskills that go into the craftsmanship.

 

In the knowledge work economy, our final work products are also an accumulation of miniskills, even though it feels as though we just produce one thing or do one thing with no real “skill” involved. However, our work requires communication skills, writing skills (a particular variation of communication skills), scheduling and coordinating skills, and oftentimes skills that require us to be able to create visually stimulating and engaging materials. Whether it is creating a slide show, coordinating an important meeting, or drafting standard operating procedures, we are not simply doing one thing, but are engaging an entire set of miniskills. True expertise in knowledge work is still derived from a set of miniskills, but the skills themselves don’t seem like real skills, and are easily ignored or overlooked. Focusing on the miniskills needed for knowledge work expertise can help us understand where we can improve, what our image of success really entails, and how to approach important projects. It is the mastery and connection of various miniskills that enables us to be experts in what we do, even in our ubiquitous office environments.
Performance and Mood

Performance and Mood

We are in the middle of a global health pandemic, but it comes at a time when companies are starting to radically re-think the work environments they set up for their employees. I worked for a time for a tech company based out of the San Francisco Bay Area, and saw first hand the changing thoughts in how companies relate to their employees. Every day wasn’t a party, but companies like the one I worked for were beginning to recognize how important a healthy, happy, and agreeable workforce is to productivity and good outcomes as whole. The pandemic has forced companies to think even more deeply about these things, and some blend of remote and office work schedules will likely remain for a huge number of employees. Hopefully, we will walk away from the pandemic with workplaces that better align with the demands placed on people today, and hopefully we will be more happy in our work environments.

 

Research that Daniel Kahneman presents in his book Thinking Fast and Slow suggest that adapting workplaces to better accommodate employees and help them be more happy with their work could have huge positive impacts for our futures. Regarding tests for intuitive accuracy, Kahneman shares the following about people’s performance on tests and their mood:

 

“Putting participants in a good mood before the test by having them think happy thoughts more than doubled accuracy. An even more striking result is that unhappy subjects were completely incapable of performing the intuitive task accurately; their guesses were no better than random.”

 

Our mood impacts our thoughts and our thinking processes. When we are happy, we are better at making intuitive connections and associations. If we need to be productive, accurate, and intuitive, then we better have an environment that supports a relatively high level of happiness.

 

If our work environment does the opposite, if we are overwhelmed by stress and must deal with toxic culture issues, then it is likely that we will be less accurate with our tasks. We won’t perform as well, and those who depend on our work will receive sub-par products.

 

There is likely a self-perpetuating effect with both scenarios. A happy person is likely to perform better, and they will likely be praised for their good outcomes, improving their happiness and reinforcing their good work. But someone who is unhappy will likely have poor performance and is more likely to be reprimanded, leading to more unhappiness and continued unsatisfactory performance. For these reasons it is important that companies take steps to help put their employees in a good mood while working. This requires more than motivational posters, it requires real relationships and inclusion in important decisions around the workspace. In the long run, boosting mood among employees can have a huge impact, especially if the good results reinforce more positive feeling and continued high quality output. Changing work schedules and locations as forced upon employers by the pandemic can provide an opportunity for employers to think about the demands they place on employees, and what they can do to ensure their employees have healthy, safe workplaces that encourage positive moods and productivity.
Employers, Employees, and Opioids

Employers, Employees, and Opioids

One of the frustrations I have with modern day America is how frequently employers say that their greatest asset is their employees, but don’t back that statement up with actual action that helps improve the lives of their employees. Many of us work 40 hours when our work could reasonably be completed in fewer hours, alternatively many of us have incredible demands and insufficient help or time to complete our work. On the benefits side, many of us have health plans that don’t make preventative care affordable and have high deductibles and copays which place basic medical care beyond our reach. These frustrations, incursions into our non-work-lives, and a lack of support for living healthy lives are examples where employers are failing to live up to the claim that so many of them make about the care and value they have for their employees.

 

In the end, a failure to take care of employees and a willingness to let workers languish hurts the employers as much as the employees. In his book, The Opioid Crisis Wake-Up Call Dave Chase writes, “Ohio attorney general Mike DeWine estimated that 40 percent of job applicants in the state either failed or refused a drug test. The result: In certain places, solid middle-class jobs can’t be filled.”

 

On a first read, the problem sounds like it is on the job applicants. Why are so many job applicants using drugs, refusing drug tests, and unable to be hired for work? Shouldn’t they stop using drugs, get their lives together, and do the sensible things to be responsible humans and find employment? From the outside, as someone with a job who doesn’t have an opioid addiction, this is easy to say and think, but it’s also shortsighted.

 

Many of us have incredibly lengthy commutes, decimated social lives, no meaningful civic or religious organizations to give us purpose outside of work, and lack access to supportive mental health and general healthcare services. When we fall on hard times and need assistance, we don’t have a social safety net that we can fall back upon with encouragement and understanding. We feel isolated, can barely afford healthcare, don’t have much time outside of work and commutes for social or civic engagement, and if we do need welfare, the system is designed to make us feel like abject failures for turning to public support programs for help.

 

The blame can’t fall entirely on the individual. Businesses have to be held accountable as well, after all, employers count on a strong labor market to stay afloat and be productive. If they truly value their employees, they should prioritize a happy, healthy, and effective workplace by pushing back against institutions and structures in our lives that make us miserable, depressed, unhealthy, and uncommitted to the work we do. Chase’s book shows how employers are beginning to do this, by providing more services (in healthcare) to their employees and actually saving money while doing so. Employers can let their actions speak louder than their HR slogans, and can help their employees actually live healthy lives. In the end, the workforce that they rely upon will indeed be more reliable.
Making People Feel Valuable

Making People Feel Valuable

Toward the end of his book Dreamland, Sam Quinones quotes a the VP of sales from a shoelace factory in Portsmouth Ohio named Bryan Davis. Speaking of the company that Davis helps run, and discussing how Davis and a few others took over a failing shoelace company and reinvented it, Davis says, “It’s all been about money, the mighty dollar. The true entrepreneurial spirit of  the U.S. has to be about more than that. It has to be about people, relationships, about building communities.”

 

Quinones writes about how the decline of manufacturing has harmed cities across the United States. He understands why companies have relocated oversees, and in some ways accepts that businesses move and that economies change, but he sees the abandonment of American workers and the lack of supports for those workers when opportunities disappear as a major contributing factor to the Nation’s current opioid epidemic. When people suddenly lose the job they have held for years, when there is no clear alternative for them to turn to in order to feel useful, valuable, and like a contributing member of society, an alternative to ease the pain of their new reality is often pain killing opioid medications. It is an easy recipe for widespread addiction.

 

I don’t understand economics well enough to place criticism on businesses and factories that move operations to different cities, different states, or different countries altogether. I won’t criticize or praise these companies, but what is clear to me, is that we need to find ways to be more respectful of the people who work for and with us. We need to find real ways to make people feel valuable in their jobs, whether they are call center staff, healthcare workers, or a VP of a successful company. We can’t set out with a goal to make money and then withdraw ourselves from the lives of our fellow Americans and communities. We have to develop real relationships with people across the political, economic, and cultural spectrum of the communities where we live, otherwise we turn toward isolation, which isn’t helpful or healthy for ourselves or others in the long run.

 

This is the idea that Bryan Davis expressed. We can be inventive, creative, and push for economic success, but we should do so in a way that supports our community and values relationships with those around us and in our lives. If we only drive toward our own wealth and bottom line, we risk exploiting people, and that ultimately leaves them in a vulnerable position where isolation, depression, and isolation are all the more possible.
Deciding Which Tasks to Own

Deciding Which Tasks to Own

In the knowledge economy, many of us have a thousand things we could do with our time at any given moment. Email (as I have written about previously) is always an available option to us, we usually have a lot of reports we could work on, and there is always another meeting we could be doing more to prep for. How do we decide which activities are the most important, which tasks we will own, and which things will be left behind?

 

One answer, is to think about how specialized the task is to your own skill set. This gives us a question to ask when considering the work that is the most important, and what should be our priority. The question comes from Cal Newport in his book Deep Work, “How long would it take (in months) to train a smart recent college graduate with no specialized training in my field to complete this task?”

 

Responding to a bulk of emails, creating a PowerPoint slide, and plugging some data into an Excel file are examples of activities that don’t require much thoughtful training. Sure, your emails need your insight and decision-making for response, but a smart college grad could plug through a bunch of emails just as well as you could. They could also throw together a decent PowerPoint, and enter a bunch of info into a spreadsheet without a much specialized knowledge and training. They could easily replace you if that is what your day consists of.

 

Newport would suggest that you start to focus your day around those tasks which rely on your specialized knowledge and abilities if you don’t want to be easily replaced. If you want to maximize your value, produce at a high level, and get important stuff done, then you should look to delegate those tasks that a recent college graduate could complete and spend more time deliberately working on the challenging tasks. You will get better at doing the things that matter the most, and you will have a greater impact in your organization.
Shutdown Rituals

Shutdown Rituals

What do you do at the end of your work day? Do you just haphazardly save and close out of anything that you happen to be working on during the last 10 minutes of work? Do you glance back through your email one last time and shoot off a couple emails to make sure you got a response in before you left for the day? Do you even sign off for the day or do you just leave the office only to continue checking email and doing tidbits of work here and there for the rest of your evening?

 

One thing about work today is that it can creep into every moment of our lives. It is easy to continue checking your work email all weekend long, to continue to take calls from clients well into the evening, and to hop on for a few minutes here and there when you are off the clock to help take care of something. All of this can be extremely draining, and we can become overly consumed by our work. Living this way pushes our family out, adds a low level of stress to each moment of our day, limits our time for real leisure and disconnection from work, and as Cal Newport puts it in his book Deep Work, prevents our unconscious brain from working through those challenging issues when we are not thinking of them directly.

 

Newport’s solution? Shutdown rituals. For Newport, ending the day with a plan is incredibly important for having a life focused on meaningful things within and outside of work. Shutdown rituals are crucial for setting ourselves up to have a productive workday the following day. If you take some time to gather your thoughts, reflect on what you accomplished, how long it took, and what you wish you had been able to achieve, you will be able to better structure your work and your days. You can plan ahead for the next day to make sure you get the really important thing done and avoid getting stuck on the small unimportant details. Shutdown rituals allow you to evaluate what went well, and where improvements could be made. They also allow you to put your work down, knowing that you have a plan to address the crucial things tomorrow, when your brain is fresh.

 

Newport writes, “Shutdown rituals can become annoying, as they add an extra ten to fifteen minutes to the end of your workday (and sometimes even more), but they’re necessary for reaping the rewards of systematic idleness summarized previously.”
Deep Work Via Leveraging Complex Machinery

Leveraging Complex Machinery

Recently I have been thinking a lot about what makes our work lives feel meaningful and valuable. I currently have a job where I am not continuously busy. I’m not flooded with emails all day long, I don’t have a lot of pressure from a multitude of reports to complete, and I don’t have an endless string of asks from a supervisor. A lot of my friends seem to be a bit jealous of me, but the truth is that I would switch jobs with most of them.

 

Cal Newport in his book Deep Work explains how deep focus can be a lot more meaningful than shallow work which doesn’t thoroughly engage the mind and doesn’t provide much value. Newport writes, “To increase the time you spend in a state of depth is to leverage the complex machinery of the human brain in a way that for several different neurological reasons maximizes the meaning and satisfaction you’ll associate with your working life.”

 

I wouldn’t necessarily want a job where I was running around like crazy, putting out fires, never getting to focus on any deep work, but I would prefer to have a job where real concentration and focus was necessary in order for me to get important things done. Most of my friends probably want a job where they have less stress and fewer time crunches, and as I described in a previous post, this could probably be achieved in their busy jobs by cutting out email and focusing their schedule around their deep and important work.

 

What is interesting in the quote from Newport is that our minds feel best and find meaning when they are engaged with important work that requires focus. It is not when our minds get to kick back, follow a twitter stream, and check up on sports celebrities that we are the most happy. It is having meaningful work to contribute to and a chance to focus deeply that makes work meaningful and worthwhile. We shouldn’t set out to have cushiony job that doesn’t place many demands on us. Instead, the research seems to suggest, we should set out to find a job that allows us to build good habits of focused work and contribute toward a meaningful cause. This will help our brains feel fulfilled, and will give us a chance to leverage the complex machinery of our brains, rather than allow that machinery to atrophy.
work and craftsmanship

Think of Your Work as a Craft

In his book Deep Work, Cal Newport highlights the work of Ric Furrer, a modern day blacksmith creating historical themed swords, knives, and weapons in his own modern day forge. His work is important in Newport’s book because it is a true craft that demands focus. He can only do his work, and do it well, if he is constantly focused and aware of the small details of what he is doing. He can’t afford to be distracted, to take micro-breaks to check a tweet, or bounce between his metal-work and an email or two.

 

Craftsman working with their hands have an advantage over modern day knowledge workers. They create something tangible that they can hold and see. People working construction and landscaping have the same advantage, a tie back to our early ancestors and human evolutionary past – their work can be seen. Knowledge workers’ reports, emails, and reading can’t actually be seen. As a result, we make efforts to be very visible with our work, responding to every email, posting witty tweets, and Instagramming our pile of books.

 

What ends up happening, in way that Newport describes it, is that we forget to focus on what is important with our work, and allow ourselves to be distracted.  Our work starts to lack purpose and meaning, and we take on shallow tasks. We do visible yet unimportant work rather than the important but sometimes invisible work that is required for us to really be great at what we do.

 

Newport writes, “Craftsmen like Furrer tackle professional challenges that are simple to define but difficult to execute – a useful imbalance when seeking purpose. Knowledge work exchanges this clarity  for ambiguity. It can be hard to define exactly what a given knowledge worker does and how it differs from another: On our worst days, it can seem that all knowledge work boils down to the same exhausting roil of emails and PowerPoint.” 

 

The challenge for us is to understand what is truly important and focus on that work. We can’t worry about being seen as productive. Instead, we have to focus on ensuring our time is spent on the most important issues, even if we don’t have something tangible to tell everyone that we did at the end of the day.

 

I have found tracking my work to be helpful in this regard. At the end of the day, we can forget just how much time we spent on a given project, and we can have trouble seeing the progress we made. If we think more deeply about what we need to do to make progress on important goals, we can identify smaller targets, and document, for our own sake, what we have done to reach those targets. This gives us a sense of craft, even in a knowledge economy. The more we can tie what we do to a feeling of craftsmanship, the better we can be at recognizing how important it is that we bring our best focus to our work.
Clarity on What Matters

Do You Know What Matters?

For a while I worked in the healthcare tech start-up space, and two of the biggest challenges we often faced was knowing what was the most important thing to work on, and how to be productive to accomplish our goals. I was in a role where I interfaced between multiple teams and a lot of my day was spent with email. I didn’t spend my entire day producing reports, working on spreadsheets, or creating new policy documents. Much of my day involved putting out minor fires that popped up for people working across the teams I worked between. This left me in a position where it was hard to measure my productivity. If I wasn’t producing a report of one type, and was just going to meetings and responding to emails, how did I demonstrate that I was working continuously and trying to accomplish things?

 

The easy answer which I often fell into was email. The quicker I responded to email, the more email I responded to, and the more visible I was in those emails, the more everyone would know I was working hard. The problem, however, is that responding to a ton of emails often isn’t very productive, and it often doesn’t address the most pressing problems. When I started to recognize this and shift my activity, a lot of emails fell aside (not to mention Slack Channels), and I started to actually be better at my job.

 

In Deep Work Cal Newport writes, “Clarity about what mattes provides clarity about what does not.”

 

For the first couple of years I didn’t have good clarity about what mattered. I spent a good amount of time on projects that were never going to go anywhere, and I spent a good amount of time responding to emails that really never needed a response. I looked productive, but what I worked on didn’t help drive toward the company’s biggest objectives.

 

In our work lives (and really in our lives in general) we need to start focusing on what truly matters. The better we can be at asking what is important and the better we can understand the why behind that importance, the more we can accomplish. As we practice this we will see what things are unimportant in our lives, and we can take steps to cut those things out, leaving us with more space and time for the important things. If we don’t stop to ask what things really matter, we won’t see which things don’t matter, and we won’t be able to move those things to the periphery.
Don't let standing meetings become too much

Watch Out For Standing Meetings

For teams working on diverse projects and diverse tasks within projects, standing meetings can be important. It is often necessary to get the important decision-makers in a room to discuss updates, progress, hurdles, plans, and challenges. At the same time, however, these meetings can overwhelm our schedules leaving individuals with too many meetings and not enough time for work.

 

Cal Newport, in his book Deep Work, answers the question: Why do these meetings persist even when they have become overwhelming and overbearing on our schedules?

 

They’re easier. For many, these standing meetings become a simple (but blunt) form of personal organization. Instead of trying to manage their time and obligations themselves, they let the impending meeting each week force them to take some action on a given project and more generally provide a highly visible simulacrum of progress.”

 

Rather than really working on goals and objectives, standing meetings allow us to pick marginal work targets on a flexible, rolling weekly basis. The work done (or planned) from week to week might not actually be an important step forward, but it can feel like something and we can vocalize that we have at least done something during the previous week.

 

Newport doesn’t suggest killing all meetings, but rather using our meeting time more wisely and cutting meetings when they are in the way. If we find that meetings are not really providing us much useful planning, and if the topics discussed at a regularly scheduled meeting don’t seem to have much weight, we should remove it from the schedule. If it is helping us with planning and staying on track, and if we are using the meeting to its full potential, then it is worth keeping. The key is planning and focusing outside of the meeting, ensuring that when we do meet, we are not wasting time but actually addressing important topics and setting concrete steps to make meaningful progress on our objectives.