The business of busyness

In the movie Iron Man, Tony Stark (Iron Man) tells Pepper Potts, his assistant, the following:

There is nothing except this. There’s no art opening, no charity, nothing to sign. There’s the next mission, and nothing else.

Another Tony, this time a real-one, Tony Schwartz in a HBR article a few years ago wrote about how being really busy is a way to avoid feeling anything because you have no time to think or feel. By extrapolation, you could say there’s just the next task to complete, the next deadline to hit, and nothing else.

I’ve been thinking about this recently because I’ve been busy in the same way that Tony Schwartz mentions and it leads to a single-minded focus to finish stuff; it also leads to your neglecting everything else. I’ve been busy to the point of working long hours and on weekends but it’s not something that I can see myself doing for months on end. But, I know people who do it project after project and I’ve wondered about how.

One way to do it is to neglect everything else as I’ve mentioned above; this means, if you have almost no family life, no social life, effectively no personal time or life. The other thing about why people do it is more interesting and I believe that money is a (small to medium) factor. Another factor is the feeling of accomplishment such work can bring. A big factor, though, is the thrill and excitement of meeting deadlines or working in a fast-paced (read: exciting) environment; as in, there are people who enjoy this kind of working. I’m not one of them; when you’re working in such a way that you’re not sure what day it is, I think that’s taking things too far.

In general, people seem to think that there’s something heroic about working extremely hard to a point where you’re pushing the boundaries of what’s possible. We tend to admire people who do the working on late nights [1], long hours, or weekends but not the people who manage a great balance between their work and personal lives while still producing quality work. Who hasn’t heard admiring stories about people (in government, tech, business, or medicine) who survive on lesser sleep than other mortals?

Maybe it’s a human thing to we admire the superhuman effort but there are costs because, unfortunately, we are not super-humans. You can do this sort of crazy working hours for a limited period (a few weeks) but if you keep pushing yourself for longer periods, then there are negative consequences. Your physical health is one, your emotional and mental health are the other, and then there are the consequences to your family and social life, and so on.

For companies too, I don’t think this sort of busyness is good for business. Lack of sleep, exercise, down time, and so on will lead to a decrease in the performance and quality of work [2]. So, rewarding unsustainable hard work is not a good example for companies to set either. Sadly though, I don’t think this mindset is going away anytime soon. So, it’s up to individuals to manage their work lives and set expectations boundaries.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I really need to get back to work.


[1]: Notice though that it’s almost always about the late nights but not so much about the person who wakes up early. Maybe there’s something more heroic about soldiering on well into the night as compared to taking a break and waking up early (and refreshed)?

[2]: Tony Schwartz, who founded The Energy Project, is also the co-author of a wonderful book called The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working; sub-title: The Four Forgotten Needs That Energize Great Performance.

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J. K. Rowling’s speech at Harvard

I’ve linked to this already (see right hand side of blog) but I thought it was worth blogging about it since some of you may not be clicking on the links that I pick out so painstakingly.

Here’s the link to the video and transcript of the speech which is worth listening to or reading, whichever poison you like better. An excerpt:

Now, I am not going to stand here and tell you that failure is fun. That period of my life was a dark one, and I had no idea that there was going to be what the press has since represented as a kind of fairy tale resolution. I had no idea how far the tunnel extended, and for a long time, any light at the end of it was a hope rather than a reality.

So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged.

It really is worth reading the whole piece though, so go read.

Money for Writing…

John Scalzi, who among other things writes Whatever, a popular blog, wrote an entry a couple of days ago titled Unasked-For Advice to New Writers About Money . If you’re a freelancer you’ll find the post interesting and informative and with Scalzi’s writing style, entertaining as well. Just read the post already.

An excerpt:

I made $164,000 last year from my writing. I’ve averaged more than $100,000 in writing income for the last ten years, which means, for those of you who don’t want to bother with the math, that I’ve made more than a million dollars from my writing in the last decade. …

Why am I offering this entirely unsolicited advice about money to new writers? Because it very often appears to me that regardless of how smart and clever and interesting and fun my fellow writers are on every other imaginable subject, when it comes to money — and specifically their own money — writers have as much sense as chimps on crack. It’s not just writers — all creative people seem to have the “incredibly stupid with money” gene set for maximum expression — but since most of creative people I know are writers, they’re the nexus of money stupidity I have the most experience with. It makes me sad and also embarrasses the crap out of me; people as smart as writers are ought to know better.

Then, prolific writer that he is, John Scalzi followed it up with another entry further elaborating on a couple of points. That post is also worth reading.

Since I am in the linking mood, I’ll also point you to a post by Jim C. Hines (via John Scalzi) giving his perspective on the money thing.

And finally, at the end of the three-course meal, here’s an excellent dessert titled Writing advice they don’t want you to read .

If that meal don’t fill you up then nothing will.

Invisible Women

From Kalpana Sharma’s excellent piece Invisible Women about a documentary called Lakshmi and Me:

We usually wake up to their existence when they don’t turn up for work. And the first response is annoyance, because of the inconvenience caused to us. Many professional women don the title of being superwomen because they manage jobs and homes — work life balance. But in fact the real superwomen are these silent workers, without whom few professional women in India would be able to function.

Yet, while those in formal employment get sick leave, casual leave, privileged leave and weekends, our domestic help is not entitled to any of this. If she rests too long, she’s lazy. If she doesn’t turn up for work, she’s a shirker. It would appear that these women don’t have the right to relax, to fall sick, to have some fun. And of course, no one acknowledges that when they’re done with our homes, they still have their own homes where they have to do the very same jobs, sweep and swab, wash clothes, cook and take care of children and elderly.

Nishtha Jain, a Mumbai-based documentary filmmaker has done what all of us need to do. She has not just acknowledged that this silent worker in her home has a name, but she’s followed her life so that we see the person behind the name — a person just like any of us. And instead of viewing the woman from a distance, the filmmaker has bravely placed herself in the frame, honestly dissecting her own relationship as an employer. Lakshmi and Me is a remarkably honest documentary about 21-year-old Lakshmi and the filmmaker, Nishtha.

You can read the rest of the article here and get information about the movie here.

Oh to have a job like this

From the Hindustan Times:

Like several times in the last three-and-a-half years, both Houses of Parliament were adjourned sine die on Monday, four days ahead of schedule, amid speculation of mid-term polls and a government-opposition deadlock on the BJP’s demand for a joint parliamentary committee (JPC) to look into the Indo-US nuclear deal.

The Lok Sabha Speaker Somnath Chatterjee said in his wrap-up:

“It is extremely disturbing that the highest public forum in this country has almost come to a standstill which has raised questions about the utility of our system of parliamentary democracy and about its future,” he said. He reiterated that parliamentary democracy can function only when there is active participation of all the sections of the House and when the House functions with decorum and dignity.

There are ways to get your point across in a discussion of any sort and yelling and shouting or even walking out is probably the least effective. Maybe all our honourable MPs need training on how to give and receive criticism, how to have productive and effective meetings, general communication skills, etc.

If it were up to me I’d make it mandatory for all honourable MPs to attend trainings in what could be packaged as an orientation course. So many companies have soft skills training programmes for their employees. I don’t see why this can’t be extended to our honourable MPs and even honourable MLAs.

Yes, the cost would not be insignificant but I think it would be less than the cost of adjourning Parliament ever so often. Also, think about the benefits of having sessions where discussions are cordial and things actually get done.

I don’t know about you, but I’d like a Parliament where things get done.

On the importance of failure (John August)

John August, script writer, director, and movie guru, has written a nice piece for Men’s Health called My Glorious Defeat

Maybe failure isn’t the problem. Maybe expectation is.

After I was fired from my TV show, I was certain I’d never work in television again. I’d been given a great opportunity and blown it. The studio and network were out millions of dollars. But then the phone started ringing, with studios and networks asking whether I’d consider doing TV again. What had changed?

Nothing. I’d simply forgotten what folks working in TV take as a given: Most shows fail. Every spring, the networks introduce new products to replace the fall and winter die-off. When a show tanks, they don’t spend weeks wondering why. They put a new show in its place.

They expect failure, and are delighted when it doesn’t come.

My Glorious defeat is well-written and even if you are familiar with the underlying philosophy, it’s worth a read.

Great tips for hiring the best people

Marc Andreessen, who’s best-known for being the co-founder of a company you may have heard of, Netscape, wrote a superb post titled How to hire the best people you’ve ever worked with.

He splits the post into an explanation of the criteria (‘what to value when evaluating candidates’) and the process (‘how to actually run the hiring process, and if necessary the aftermath of making a mistake’)

The criteria: drive, curiosity, and ethics. No intelligence? Here’s what Andreessen has to say about that:

Lots of people will tell you to hire for intelligence.

Especially in this industry.

You will read, hire the smartest people out there and your company’s success is all but guaranteed.

I think intelligence, per se, is highly overrated.

Specifically, I am unaware of any actual data that shows a correlation between raw intelligence, as measured by any of the standard metrics (educational achievement, intelligence tests, or skill at solving logic puzzles) and career or company success.

Now, clearly you don’t want to hire dumb people, and clearly you’d like to work with smart people.

It’s a superb post and while it’s written for a software-based company, you could extrapolate to other fields as well.

Even if you’re not hiring people, you can read the post and forward it to all the recruiters you know. And your managers.

Why do you think I’m writing about it?

Recycling to live

An interesting article from Al Jazeera titled Recycling for life in Argentina:

‘Cartoneros’, or ‘recyclers’, have become one of the enduring consequences of the Argentinean economic crisis of 1999 – 2002, when the peso devalued by 70 per cent.

Their job has meant dramatic results for the environment by reducing the amount of solid waste going into landfill by 25 per cent.

Cartoneros collect cardboard, plastic and glass from the more salubrious neighbourhoods of Buenos Aires and then sell it to recycling companies.

According to some estimates, there are now 30,000 cartoneros in Buenos Aires. While Argentina shows signs of economic recovery, entire families are looking for garbage on the streets in order to translate their findings into cash, in a job that pays less than $10 per week.

The Indian equivalent are the ragpickers and they usually have a gunny sack that is used to carry the “useful waste”, usually on their backs.

Using N.E.A.T meetings to curb meeting mania

An interesting article about meetings by Dick Lyles titled Free Your Colleagues from Chronic Suffering: How to Eliminate Meeting Madness. Here’s an excerpt:

Always think in terms of conducting a NEAT meeting.

  • The N stands for Nature. What’s the nature of the meeting? Is it problem solving? Decision making? Planning? It is important for participants to know the kind of meeting it will be so they will appreciate the role they will be called upon to play in the meeting.
  • The E stands for Expected outcomes. What is the purpose and desired result the meeting is expected to produce? If it’s a problem-solving meeting, are you aiming for a solution to the problem or will a definition of the problem be sufficient for this first step? What does the meeting convener hope to take away and what should each participant expect to take away? Who will use the outcome of the meeting and how will it be used? Can this information be sent out in advance so people can better prepare?
  • The A stands for Agenda. The agenda should state the purpose and expected outcomes and then list the topics or activities to be engaged. The agenda should also contain time estimates so the meeting can be managed and people can gauge the length of time committed to various agenda items.
  • The T stand for Time. When will the meeting start? When will it end? How much time will each activity or topic consume? Times should be respected.

The problems I’ve encountered with meetings have usually been that there’s a lack of a clear agenda and/or no decision on what’s to be done after the meeting (i.e., ‘What’s the next action?’, in GTD-speak). Also, when you have meetings where some people dominate, the other people tend to tune out.

Thankfully, I don’t have to attend too many meetings now, so I can spend my time wisely–surfing the net, blogging, etc.

Hiring the top 1%? Then read this…

Joel Spolsky, in a guest-column for Inc magazine, writes:

A lot of companies think they’re hiring the top 1 percent because they get 100 resumés for every open position. They’re kidding themselves. When you fill an opening, think about what happens to the 99 people you turn away. They don’t give up and go into plumbing. They apply for another job. There’s a floating population of applicants in your industry that apply for nearly every opening posted online, even though many of them are qualified for virtually none of these positions. So if the top 1 percent never apply for jobs, how can you recruit them? My theory is that the best way is to find them before they realize there is a job market–back when they’re still in college.

Joel’s approach for his company was to create a summer internship program, which isn’t your usual summer-project kind of job. How is it different? Well, for starters:

We use the summer to decide if we want them full-time. So we give them real work. Hard work. Our interns always work on production code. Sometimes they work on the coolest new stuff in the company, which can make the permanent employees a little jealous, but that’s life. One summer we had a team of four interns build a whole new tech support product, Fog Creek Copilot, from the ground up. That particular intern class paid for itself by the end of the year. Even when they’re not building a new product, our interns work on real shipping code, with the helpful advice of experienced mentors, of course. Our interns are totally, personally responsible for some major area of our software’s functionality.

They treat the interns well, they make it a good place to work, and they hire from the intern pool, and can afford to pay well because they’ve already “auditioned” the interns.

Read Recruiting the top 1 percent and if you’re interested, you can also check out other job-related articles on Joel’s site.