A sad truth about organizational life

The real question today is why so many large organizations are full of unhappy people, at all levels, who don’t up sticks and go somewhere else. Is this unhappiness because people have to work at jobs they are afraid of losing, even though they hate what they do? Are they forced to stay put working for organizations they fear and distrust?

I’ve been a reader of this blog almost since it started, as well as similar ones which cover the world of work, offer strategies for success and tips for working productively, and describe the mind-numbing idiocies you find in many organizations today. But I have recently started to wonder if one or two important points aren’t being missed.

For a start, most of these blogs are written, and largely read, by skilled and educated people who work in software or computer systems. The advice they give—about how to cope with a bad boss or get more fun from your job—is fair enough for people like them. But most people aren’t like them. “Get a job you love doing” is good advice, but obviously not everyone can follow it.

So why are so many large organizations full of unhappy people at all levels?

For a start, many of them really don’t have the skills or the freedom to go and work somewhere else. Many people do have to work at jobs they hate, but which they are afraid of losing, for organizations they fear and distrust.

But there’s another point being missed as well, I think. Happiness depends not only on the job you do. It also depends, to a large extent, on the kind of organization you work for; what it does, what its values are, and how it functions internally.

Have you got a real job?

The worth of your job, and so your own perception of it; often has less to do with its inherent interest, or whether it’s well-paid and prestigious, than whether it has a useful end-product; whether, in other words, it’s a real job.

You can say that a hospital cleaner has a real job, and so does a farm worker, or somebody selling umbrellas in the street when it’s raining. But an international tax consultant jetting around the world helping companies escape paying tax doesn’t have a real job, even if he or she travels first class and stays in expensive hotels. And a lawyer advising companies on how to get round anti-pollution legislation doesn’t have a real job either, even if she has a lovely house and a wonderful loving family.

Lower down the food-chain, of course, people do even less useful jobs without the compensations even of first-class airline travel. I was shocked, but not really surprised, to read in a review of Michael Moore’s new film that American health insurance companies employ people to covertly investigate claimants to see whether their claims can be turned down on some pretext or other.

How do you live with yourself as a human being in such a job?

“How was your day, darling?”

“Oh, I saved the shareholders a lot of money by pushing a few more families into bankruptcy, what about you?”

You may not personally do these things—any more than you may deceitfully sell mortgages to clients who can’t afford them—but it’s naive to imagine that you can work happily for a company that acts in that way, even if you are a caterer or a personal assistant.

Real jobs can still be lucrative ones

Notice that a worthwhile job doesn’t have to be an altruistic one; it’s perfectly possible to make money, and even become rich, whilst still contributing something to society.

Richard Branson and Steve Jobs, for example, are widely admired, not because they are rich but because they provide goods and services of high quality that people want to buy. So it’s not surprising that when you meet people who work for either of these companies, they tend to be happy in their work, even if what they do is not especially high-profile. And to be fair, I have known happy and fulfilled lawyers and financial advisers, who like to think of themselves as always acting in the best interests of their clients.

We live in a weirdly schizoid society, where we are encouraged to admire people who are rich, irrespective of how they got that way, and to see ruthlessness as praiseworthy and greed (really this time, and not in a film) as good. Yet at the same time—and in spite of what we read in the Economist or the Wall Street Journal—most of us have a good instinctive understanding of whether what we are doing is practically useful, and this affects what we think of our job and the organization we work for, and so how happy we are.

The link with happiness at work

So when we have a job, no matter how well-paid, where we think we aren’t doing something useful, we react by being unhappy. But because we have been taught to identify happiness with money, we assume that we are unhappy because we don’t have enough money, rather than because we have a job of no practical value.

Intelligent and educated people naturally have higher expectations; thus the paradox that the loudest demands for more money come from those who already have too much, who have sacrificed and burnt everything else in their lives to become rich, and now find they are still unhappy. They retaliate, of course, by destroying the happiness of their colleagues and their staff

When I was a child, the male working population (few women worked) overwhelmingly did things with a tangible output. They built cars, dug coal, made steel, worked on farms. In those days, in the working class area of London where I was born, your daddy was a train driver, worked in a factory, dug holes for the Gas Board or worked as a stevedore in the docks.

These days, well, your daddy might have a six-month contract at an outsourced financial services call-centre, where he has to cold call people persuading them to buy special insurance they don’t really need, and he’ll be sacked if he doesn’t meet his target. No wonder people are unhappy.

In the end, all of this comes down to the question asked of sages for thousands of years: “how can I be happy?” The best and simplest reply is the one that sages have always given: “do something useful with your life.”

An Englishman now resident in Europe, John Fletcher has had a long career in the public sector in several countries. He has spent a good deal of time in working environments outside the Anglo-Saxon world, and has written and lectured on organizational issues.

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Why trying to win big every time is going to ruin you

One of the problems of today’s obsession with always winning is that it’s impossible. However hard you try, sometimes you are bound to lose. If that causes you stress and frustration, you’re setting yourself up for a good deal of misery. Good enough is often very good indeed, especially if you can steal just a slight advantage towards winning over losing. Here’s how this works.

Do those investors—Warren Buffet, for example—who make huge fortunes get their investment choices right every time? Do people like Steve Jobs of Apple never make any product or marketing mistakes? Of course not. What allows them to amass huge fortunes and a great deal of fame is not being perfect: it’s being right just a little more often than they are wrong.

That’s why an article by Charles Helliwell caught my eye recently. In it, he coined what he calls “51:49 rule.”

His view is that most of us get decision right maybe 51% of the time: just enough of an edge over being wrong to make slow progress.

His comparison is with casinos, where the rules make sure that the House always has a slight, but significant, advantage over the customers when it comes to winning. Enough people win—and sometimes win big—to keep people coming back and wagering more of their money. The fact that, over time, the House always has that small edge over the customers ensures the operation a solid profit. If too few customers win, they will stop playing and go somewhere else. The advantage that the House gives itself has to be small enough to avoid that, but large enough to make sure it always comes out on top.

Taking the long view

Of course, my point is a simple one—but it’s still often missed. If you take a short-term view, any loss seems like a disaster; any gain seems the start of a winning streak. Gamblers who think like this quickly lose their shirts. When they lose, they try to win big enough next time to make up the loss in a single wager. When they win, their believe in their sudden luck encourages them to take bigger risks =—and so lose more.

Only with a longer-term perspective can you see that being right only 51% of the time would still leave you in a winner’s position. Mr. Helliwell says:

Let’s just reflect for a moment, what the 51:49 rule actually implies. It means that everyone’s a winner, because if you’re right 51 per cent of the time, it means that you’re still two points up on the house and that puts you ahead, even though 49 per cent of your choices were poor.

And if you can learn from those mistakes, and push your advantage to, say 55:45, or even 60:40, you’ll eventually come out as far ahead as the casino does—reaping a fat profit despite all the times you still screw up.

If you can see that, you can relax and stop obsessing about your mistakes. Sure, you still try hard to be right, but a few errors aren’t going to change the picture overall. Indeed, their essential to the learning process.

As Mr. Helliwell says:

In our working lives, however, we tend to be rather more conservative when it comes to risk—which means that we often excuse ourselves from the opportunity of learning from our mistakes. This, in turn, loads the dice against us making correct choices in future even as they become more and more critical in our mindset.

Just so long as you maintain that small percentage point advantage over the tendency to screw up, you’re going to end up a significant winner over time. If you learn from your mistakes, you can increase that edge and make your wins enormous.

Just don’t do what the losing gambler does: focus on the big, short-term win and risk everything on a single throw. That’s bound to reduce you to penury. Smart investors aim for consistent, small wins. Dumb ones are suckers for “get rich quick” schemes and quickly lose everything.

We can all learn from that.

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My weekly posting on deals with the feelings some people have that they are dogged in life by bad luck.

Is this truly the cause of their misfortunes? I don’t think so.

Any “luck” has to be random, and the essence of randomness is that it doesn’t conform to any kind of pattern.

Here’s a brief extract from the article:

No one is habitually luckier or unluckier than anyone else. It may seem so, over the short term (Random events often come in groups, just as random numbers often lie close together for several instances—which is why gamblers tend to see patterns where none exist). When you take a longer perspective, random chance is just . . . random. Yet those who feel that they are less lucky, typically pay far more attention to short-term instances of bad luck, convincing themselves of the correctness of their belief.


The best way to to improve your fortune is to decide that what happens is nearly always down to you, then focus on what works and what turns out well, not the bad stuff. Your “fate” depends on the choices that you make. When random events happen, as they always will, do you choose to try to turn them to your advantage . . . or just complain about them?

You can read the rest of the article here: Do you suffer from bad luck?

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Another basic principle of Slow Leadership

Fragmented, distracted attention is the curse of today’s workplaces. People are continually interrupted by phone calls, emails, instant messaging, meetings, and all manner of people demanding instant attention. The result is frustration and exhaustion, while nothing is ever properly completed. Since how you direct your attention controls what you think and what you do, it’s important always to know where you’re placing your attention.

Your attention is precious. You have only a finite amount of it, so how you use it is important. Don’t be taken in by all the nonsense about multitasking. Multitasking never adds to your attention. It’s just a fashionable term to hide an ugly reality: that people who multitask fragment their attention between many, many actions, thus passing each one off with less than it deserves.

The correct use of attention is critical both to avoiding stress, when you can, and limiting its effects when you cannot. A distracted mind is stressful in itself. So is jumping from task to task, never having the time to do more than apply a quick fix before moving to the next crisis.

Many people act is if their attention is not their own—as if others can demand it at any time, then take it where they want it to go.

Not so. This happens only because you allow it to—because you surrender control of your attention to others. Just because the boss demands that you jump, you don’t have to do no more than ask “how high?” If that’s your attitude, it’s because you have chosen it to be—obedience in return for . . . what? Money? Status? Imagined security? Not being hurt?

Understanding that your attention is always yours, to apply where you choose to apply it, is the first stage in realizing that your experience is as much determined by your own choices as by the action of others or blind chance. It’s a vital step to turning yourself from a passive victim into a human being, fully accountable for his or her own choices and their outcomes.

Your attention is finite

You have only 100 percent. So if you split it between two actions, whatever you earmark to each one must add up to 100 percent. Split it evenly and each gets no more than 50 percent. Favor one task over the other and one gets maybe 60 or 70 percent and the other 30 to 40 percent. People who way they juggle four or five tasks at once, can’t give any of them more than about 20 percent of attention. Ask yourself this question. What tasks can you do well on 10 to 20 percent attention—or less?

We’re already seeing how the fashion for instant availability by cellphone and texting is causing road accidents. Every time some driver cuts me up or makes a dangerous maneuver, I look to see if he or she has a cellphone jammed against an ear. Sure enough, most times that’s the case. When states and cities have to pass laws to force drivers to put the cellphone down while driving, you know something is badly out of line. Only morons believe that they can give their attention to driving and handle a cellphone at the same time.

How to get it right

To practice Right Attention, the Slow Leadership way, the first step is to stop sleeping with the enemy. Don’t collude with any practice that fragments or distracts your attention, or prevents you using it as you decide it needs to be used at the time.

  • Control distractions. Make it clear you are not always available, save in a true emergency. Shut off the cellphone. Check emails only at set intervals. The world won’t end.
  • Avoid multitasking like the plague it is. Take tasks in sequence and try to complete each one (or reach a sensible point to pause) before moving to the next. Multitasking is a badge of stupidity, not a mark of toughness.
  • Pay attention to your attention. Learn to direct it where you want. Don’t let it be hijacked by other people.
  • Set priorities and stick to them. Other people will always want attention instantly, but if you’re patient in making it clear this isn’t the norm, they’ll get the message. Very few things truly cannot wait.
  • Schedule time for thinking and reflection. You need it. It’s necessary to keep your mind working and your creativity available. Don’t allow yourself to put it at the bottom of your agenda. You’ll never reach it.

Why it matters

The first duty of a leader is to set priorities and manage resources. Your attention is the scarcest resource you have. Overwork and fatigue reduce the attention you have available. Interruptions and distractions fragment it into parcels too small to be useful. Allowing anyone to contact you at any time scatters what’s left until it becomes lost and hopelessly confused.

Yes, there are pressures. Yes, other people do expect instant answers. Yes, people do keep piling more and more tasks on you. Yes, people who rush about yelling how busy they are often do seem to be the organization’s darlings. And no, you can’t blame any of these for your problem. Joining in the general foolishness is no way to stop it—or protect yourself from its effects.

Whose attention is it? If you don’t do what’s right, who will? Only if enough people are willing to resist what has become a mindless fashion, will things change.

It’s surely worth trying.

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Why we need to resurrect an unfashionable virtue

Tolerance is an unfashionable virtue today, especially in parts of American society. Oddly, it’s often associated with weakness, where the opposite in true. To tolerate those who reject, refuse, or actively attack, your deepest beliefs and values takes enormous strength and unshakable faith in what you believe. Show me someone who persecutes those who disagree with their position and I will show you a person whose faith in their beliefs is already shaky.

Few people write about the dark side of our passions: the way they can become so intense they slip from a positive force in our lives into destroying our peace of mind. Fortunately, few of us will ever experience true obsession. Yet there is a little of the dark side of values in everyone. It’s as well to be aware of it and what it can do.

Passion and fear are natural partners. When you feel something as intensely as you feel whatever you are truly passionate about, there is always a sense of uneasiness. What would happen if you lost what is most important to you? How would you cope if it were taken away? Might someone try that?

Behind every strong human desire there is fear. People who become passionate fitting in and being part of the right crowd fear rejection and loneliness. Workaholic achievement freaks fear failure. Loners fear being dependent on anyone who might hurt them, mostly because they’ve been hurt that way before. People like this cling to their viewpoint because any alternative seems likely to be painful and scary. They reject tolerance, not because it would hurt them, but because they fear it might.

The more you cling, the less tolerant you become

The more strongly you cling to what matters most to you, the more fiercely you will respond to any threat, real or imagined, against it. People find it hard to cope calmly with such a slight danger as disagreement with the values they hold. How can someone pose a threat to your beliefs simply by holding different ones? Yet friendships are ended, families disrupted, work teams destroyed, careers derailed, and marriages wrecked by nothing more tangible than a disagreement about what is valued or believed by one of the parties. It makes no sense.

Of course, it does once you understand the fear. By refusing to accept your beliefs and values as mine too, I undermine, just a little, your confidence in what you believe. If I go further and openly oppose or denigrate your point of view, the threat is greater and the emotional response will increase in proportion. This is the paradox. The more strongly people believe in something, the less easy it is for them to cope with others who don’t. That’s why clubs become exclusive. That’s why we’ve had centuries of religious and political persecution.

How workplace tyrants develop

Our places of work are still riddled with “command-and-control” ways of thinking: beliefs about the “right” of those in positions of authority to demand that others do what they say. If it stayed at that, it would be bad enough. But it’s a small step from requiring subordinates to follow orders to demanding that they “hold the right attitudes” (i.e. the boss’s) and “show they’re sound” before they can obtain promotion.

Workplaces are social situations and bosses are sadly human. We all like to work with people with whom we feel at ease. But what a workplace needs most is people who can do the job well, not those who fit some boss’s idiosyncratic template for the kind of person they believe is “sound” or “made of the right stuff.”

Tyranny and discrimination don’t come from managers who are at ease and secure in their own beliefs and views. They can ignore anything that isn’t anti-social, illegal, or prejudicial to a good business environment, and focus purely on a person’s skills and capacity to turn in excellent work. It’s the self-righteous, the insecure, and the fearful who cannot.

Greater tolerance matters

Every day, we must all must face people whose view of the world does not match ours. You may have to work with them, serve them as customers, or answer to them as your boss. If you cannot learn to tolerate different—even uncomfortable—beliefs and viewpoints cheerfully, you’ll cause yourself and others continual pain. The dark side of your passions is always there, waiting to disrupt your life.

Strong values are usually seen as something to be applauded. Maybe. They also increase the danger of bigotry, self-righteousness, discrimination, persecution, and obsession. I’ve studied peoples’ values and beliefs for decades. In that time, I’ve met many cases of good, principled people unaware of how they allow the dark side of their passions and fears to turn them into narrow-minded, cruel tormentors of anyone who disagrees sufficiently with them.

St. Paul wrote that without charity we are nothing. He’s not an authority I’m much given to quoting, but in this case I believe he was pointing to something essential. One of the meanings of charity in Webster’s dictionary is “leniency in judging others, forbearance.” In other words, tolerance. If your values are strong but you do not practice charity and tolerance, the steep slope into bigotry, discrimination, and persecution is already under your feet.

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Can you display integrity only when it suits you?

Many people believe that they practice integrity, yet also allow themselves to slip from that standard when that suits them better. Since a calm mind and a clear conscience are major buttresses against suffering workplace stress, anyone who aspires to practice Slow Leadership ought to ask themselves this fundamental question: “Do I really behave with integrity—or do I only do so when I find it convenient?”

Peter G. Vajda, writing recently for (Integrity at work — how do you stack up?), posed the question of how far you can mix integrity with convenience. Is it acceptable to set aside the demands of ethics, honesty, and truly fair dealing when it is convenient to do so?

My own experience suggests that this is what most of us do. We believe we really are honest people—and we are, most of the time—yet we still allow ourselves the occasional (or not so occasional) lapse from strict standards of integrity when we feel that we need to do so: to meet a deadline, achieve a target, avoid getting into hot water, or butter up some superior.

Mr. Vajda’s view of such lapses in uncompromising:

Integrity is a lot like being pregnant. Either you’re pregnant, or you aren’t. There’s no middle ground. It’s the same with integrity. Either you’re behaving with integrity, or you’re not.

I’m not so sure.

Discovering your own truth

It’s good to have high ideals, but far harder to match them every day. I agree that we would all feel calmer and less anxious if we always behaved in ways that matched our deepest values, but human beings are fallible creatures. the last thing we need to do is add to our stress by feeling guilty because, faced with an impossible deadline or a raging boss, we fudged our consciences to meet our goals.

You might want to try the quiz in Mr. Vajda’s article to see how you match up to his lofty standards. I would use it for another purpose: to help understand what most often causes me to suffer from regrets and a bad conscience.

There’s more to be gained, in my view, by seeking understanding of yourself and your motives than there is from erecting some golden standard of perfect behavior and battering yourself for falling short.

Slowing down offers everyone the chance to take part in a fascinating piece of detective work: to unravel reality from the mess of myths, half-truths, misperceptions, and wishful thinking that makes up our own view of our motivations in life.

Integrity has to begin with a true understanding of who you are and what matters to you most. Only then can you see to what extent to actually live these values in your life and work. And if, as is true of most of us, the answer is that sometimes you do and sometimes you don’t, you can see what effect this has on your life.

I suspect that those who genuinely explore the effects of NOT living with integrity soon reach the conclusion that it isn’t worth it. The benefits from short-term convenience are far out-weighed by the drawbacks of long-term regrets.

Then it becomes merely rational to stick to what your conscience dictates, not a matter of guilt or following anyone else’s standards.

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Adding all the pluses and minuses honestly might produce a different picture

The almost universal assumption that “the bottom line” in business equals the net amount of profit is not correct. That’s merely the accounting version—and generally accepted standards of accounting omit a great many elements of a business that carry significant weight in real terms. If you want to understand the true corporate “bottom line,” you must take account of all those intangible and non-financial items that affect an organization’s growth and progress. It’s the same in your own life: the bottom line needs to be calculated using all the data, not just the parts that are easily turned into numbers. The only version of the “bottom line” that really counts is the one that measures whether you are acting in a way that enhances life . . . or diminishes it.

For decades, businesses have used accounting conventions to provide a picture of their status and progress. If they are being honest, everyone knows that these are inadequate. They omit huge areas of importance, such as the power of a brand, the impact of customer attitudes to the business, and the impact of fashion and the changing nature of society.

There have been some attempts to put a numerical value on a brand, and “goodwill” is used as a financial proxy for the intangibles of customer loyalty and appreciation, but such intangible items play a minor role in reaching a calculation of “the bottom line.” And that is without all the growth in “off balance sheet” items that has been so characteristic of certain corporations—especially those that have later fallen foul of the law.

Corporate intangibles

Organizational types are always attracted to things they can measure numerically. It gives them a feeling of being “scientific.” It makes it easy to produce comparisons and benchmarks. It looks objective.

But what is easy is not always correct, and reaching a “bottom line” figure on purely numerical and financial data tends to distort reality.

What is the true position of an organization that is currently making substantial profits, but alienating its customers by the methods it has chosen to do so? What about one that is maximizing short-term gains by mortgaging—or compromising—long-term growth necessities? As the world finally wakes up to the size of the problem of the human impact on the environment, what is the “bottom line” for an organization that relies on old, polluting technologies to make its profits?

The rash of Chinese imports to the USA that break US standards of product safety shouldn’t surprise anyone. All these Chinese companies are doing is copying their Western models by finding ways to maximize short-term profits at the expense of quality and safety standards. The main difference is that they aren’t nearly as practiced at doing it, so they are caught out more easily. Western companies have been sacrificing ethical and environmental standards for over a hundred years in their belief that immedaite financial profitability is the only “bottom line” that matters.

Personal calculations

For individuals too, those “bottom line” calculations are far trickier than they look.

The writers of the Christian Bible were aware of this thousands of years ago. “What shall it profit a man,” they asked, “if he gain the whole world yet lose his own soul?”

That question is just as relevant today as then. Is it a fair calculation of your personal “bottom line” to look only at getting and spending? Is it enough to make as much personal profit as possible, if the cost includes wrecking relationships, threatening your own health, and reaching the end of your life rich, alone, and despised? What if your personal profit comes mostly by exploiting others or pillaging the environment? Is that acceptable, merely because it makes sense in financial terms? What value do you put on a clear conscience and a civilized world?

A fresh calculation

The assumption that profit and financial success are the only “bottom line” calculations that matter, even to corporations, seems to me to be hopelessly superficial and naive. The rise of Hamburger Management, with its mindless mantra of “faster and cheaper,” has merely made matters worse.

The most effective corporations have never subscribed to a view that short-term profitability is all that matters. Costco, for example, provides employee wages and benefits well in excess of what proponents of financial-bottom-line-only thinking believe is correct; and still makes substantial profits. Before it lost its way and gave in to the supposed financial gurus (and not incidentally nearly went bust by doing so), Marks & Spencer in Britain was noted for putting product quality and high ethical standards at the top of its list of priorities. So long as it did so, it appeared impregnable to competition. When it dropped such “antiquated” notions in favor of fashion and profit, it soon lost its premier place.

What about your “bottom line?” How are you calculating it?

Is your personal “bottom line” calculation based on nothing but the size of your bank balance, the number of expensive toys you own, or your prospects of promotion? Where do peace of mind, sound relationships, trust, ethical standards, and good health rate? You cannot put a monetary value on them, but many people have found after a while that they would give all the money they have to bring back these intangibles of a civilized life . . . if only they could.

The true “bottom line” is the value your life has. Does your presence on this earth enhance it or harm it? Are others glad that you are alive, or do they blame you for diminishing their lives?

Until you make that calculation—and make it honestly—you are nowhere near the real “bottom line” of existence.

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Work/life balance is NOT what you think

It’s easy to assume working less will inevitably make you happier or that spending 60 hours or more each week working is BAD. What is bad is betraying your identity: working longer hours that fits who you are; pretending to be a hard-driven, achievement-oriented workaholic to win approval, when you’re nothing of the kind. The true meaning of finding the correct work/life balance—correct for you that is—comes from selecting a game plan for your life that correctly fits your identity.

Work/life balance isn’t simply about allocating time: it’s mostly about creating a game plan for your life that works for you in your present circumstances. It’s about your identity and authenticity.

How much of your identity, your sense of self, and your self-esteem, is linked to your work?

For many people starting out on a career, the answer is nearly all of it. That’s understandable, since work is usually a continuation of education in terms of a field for achievement, and most young persons long to establish themselves as people of worth.

Later, especially if you gain family commitments, things get more complex. You likely want to be able to give your family a good life, which usually means higher earnings and probably regular promotions. At the same time, if all you do is work, they’ll hardly see you—except as some exhausted, harassed person who appears late at night and spends the weekends locked away catching up with work. Being a “good provider” isn’t sufficient. You have to be able to give your family regular, quality time. What was your authentic identity earlier (the rising star), no longer works. A new game plan is needed.

Later still, you may find yourself dissatisfied with your life so far. Many people find that what seemed such an obviously desirable career path in their 20s appears, in their 40s, to have been the wrong choice. They long to make a change, even if that means sacrificing some financial benefits. Yet another game plan is needed, with a different balance between work and other life goals.

Job or vocation?

Work has considerable advantages as a forum to establish personal standing: objectives and criteria for success are clear; lots of people are keeping score; rewards are well-known and visible to others. It has many disadvantages too: you are rarely in control of your own destiny; the criteria for success may change without warning; economic downturns half a world away may suddenly deprive you of your job; your organization’s goals will never include more than the most incidental interest in providing you with the avenues you need to meet your personal goals.

It’s much less easy to judge success in many other parts of life. The time-scales tend to be longer. How long will it take to know if you have been successful as a parent or a spouse? How can you judge whether you’ve fulfilled your potential as a human being outside the purely economic realm of existence? How can you compare the benefits of basing your personal identity on things outside of work with the benefits you can expect for making work your life?

I suspect many people focus on work success as much because it’s easy to estimate as because they truly see it as the center of their lives. In our achievement-dominated world, deciding not to pursue a path of economic and financial success is usually represented as something of a cop-out: an excuse to cover the fact that you knew you wouldn’t make it. We claim to admire those who follow a vocation rather than hard cash, but fail in many cases to translate this supposed admiration into a living wage.

It’s as if society assumes that those who aren’t primarily motivated by money don’t need the stuff anyway. Most of the jobs that are classed as vocational—teachers, social workers, police, fire, nurses, and the like—are abysmally underpaid. In contrast, guys assumed to be interested solely in money, like hedge-fund managers, are allowed to take home oodles of the green stuff.

How to set your own game plan

What are your standards for a successful life? It’s a question many people rarely consider in any depth. Most simply accept the conventional standards offered by society. That’s a one-size-fits-all approach that really doesn’t fit anyone too well.

Establishing a satisfactory work/life balance for yourself means first answering these basic questions:

  • What are your fundamental values? What matters more to you than anything else? If your actual game plan—the one you use, not the one you claim to use, but only aspire to—is at odds with your fundamental values, you will never feel satisfied, whatever you achieve.
  • What kind of achievements give you the greatest pleasure? If you ignore these, you may earn a great deal of money, or even reach the executive suite, but life won’t be fun or enjoyable. Why sentence yourself to 40 or more years of hard labor doing something that doesn’t even please you?
  • What do your current circumstances seem to demand? As I noted above, peoples’ game plans need to change as their circumstances change. What worked in college likely won’t work for you as you close in on retirement.

These are vital, life-altering questions and it’s always best to reach your own conclusions, whether or not they fit with what society expects, other people demand, or even what you expected yourself when you began to try to answer them. You won’t be satisfied with any game plan for work/life balance unless it accurately expresses your true sense of your own identity.

Take some time out to ponder (and discuss) the kind of person you see yourself as being and what game plan and type of work/life balance that implies.

You may really love your work and enjoy nearly most of the time you spend doing it. Equally, you may come to realize that work is a substitute for facing up to life’s other demands: it’s always there, it’s easy to get lost in it, it’s socially acceptable, and it prevents you from ever having the time to deal with whatever you’re set on avoiding. You may find that work, for you, is simply an economic necessity and your real love in life is something far from your working environment.

Whatever you find, act on your discovery. Look at the game plan you are following—the one that’s clear from your actions, not the one you maybe talk about—and see if it matches up to who you are. Every game plan implies its own unique work/life balance. And that’s the only one that matters.

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The Turtle Principle

Expert leaders inspire their followers through the sheer force and clarity of their vision. Today we look at the seven secrets to achieving and leveraging your leadership vision.

“Make decisions in the short term to satisfy the needs of the long-term.”

The Turtle Principle comes from the Tortoise and the Hare. It states that expert leaders are interested in the benefits of the long-range approach and behave accordingly.

The Personal Leadership Insight Definition of Vision is: “To passionately pursue valuable opportunities.”

  • Clearly identify a personal definition of success. Know what makes you happy, content, challenged and strong. Just as important, identify the characteristics and traits you connect with failure. Knowing what to avoid is just as critical as knowing what to include in your life.
  • When you are setting goals for the future, cross reference them with your success definition. Make certain they are moving you closer to what is important to you. You can’t be too formulaic with goals because of the uncertainty of life. However, leaders always have more things to do than they have time to do it. Leverage this scarcity and invest in highly fruitful activities.
  • Become an expert at something by investing a large portion of time in a small range of activities. This prioritization is critical if your vision is to have relevance and meaning. That is why it is called “vision” and not “visions.”
  • Talk with other people in a long-term context. When you invest in conversations about tomorrow, you invest in tomorrow. Having a vision of where you are heading and where you see your organization heading is important, but that doesn’t make it real to others. Your language needs to reflect the power you feel for your vision. Only then will it inspire others to jump on board.
  • Use positive, optimistic language. It is amazing how many “visionaries” are simply great at talking up the future. This is not a rose-colored glasses approach. You must consider the up and down sides of your vision. However, expert leaders understand the power of their language and how it directs the opinions and behavior of others.
  • Get as clear a picture of your future as you can. Talk with others, listen to people who have been there, and visualize as many aspects as possible. As your vision gets clearer, your passion grows stronger. This visualization also helps you to make it through the extreme challenges you will face while making your vision come alive. I am a huge believer in faith. But I also understand that seeing is believing— even if it’s just in your mind.
  • Leaders with great vision don’t let short-term failures or set-backs break their spirit. You can’t just talk about the future; you have to believe it will come to fruition, no matter what happens today. There are thousands of leaders who have a vision for the future. Expert leaders fight the fights worth fighting and make it through the tough times.
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Dealing with objections to slowing down

“I can’t slow down. I have so much to do. If I slowed down, my results would fall off and I’d be in a total mess.” It sounds like a reasonable objection to the idea of “Slow” in the workplace, but it’s not. Much of the reasoning that justifies our frenetic world is like this: plausible on the surface, but deeply flawed on closer inspection.

Why do people have so much to do? Much of it is genuine overload, caused by macho management and greedy cost-cutting. But a significant part is also due to faulty working styles. They’re overworked because they rush too much and cut too many corners, so they’re forced to go back to correct mistakes. Put plainly, they are encouraged to substitute effort for effectiveness.

It’s easier for bosses and organizations to force employees to do more work and keep longer hours than to invest in what would be needed to help them become more effective in the time normally available. Increasing effective working takes thought, research, investment. Making people work harder usually takes little more than inbred dictatorial behavior and a certain amount of posturing and shouting.

The rationale of excessive work demands

Let’s be honest. Business today isn’t about making goods or providing services—let alone providing employment. It’s about making money. It always has been. Once you accept that, a good deal of what is done becomes totally rational.

If you can increase output by making people work longer hours, while paying them no more to do so, why wouldn’t you? And why wouldn’t you keep on doing it until they collapse? It isn’t making your business a whit more genuinely productive (productivity is the ratio of effort to output in a given time, not length of working hours). But it is making you a whole lot more money in the short term.

Pleasing Wall Street is vital because most money today is made by trading stocks and financial derivatives, not by making or selling things. With executives’ incomes also dependent on stock options, they’re only interest is in stock trading too. Look at the vast salaries “earned” by people who run hedge funds. Doesn’t that show you where the real money is being made?

That’s why so many business leaders happily sacrifice long-term success for short-term profit. It’s a simple case of “take the money and run.”

Back to slowing down

If you really want to prosper in the long term—individually or organizationally—it’s going to require you to be more effective. Focusing on short-term gain, and gambling in the financial markets, won’t help you in that. If you want to have a long-term, fairly secure path to success, being more effective at what you do is the only thing that counts.

How do you improve your effectiveness? By thinking hard, exploring deeply, listening carefully, and finding ever more creative ways to do better than you have until now.

What do all these actions have in common? They take time, attention, and careful focus. They can’t be accomplished by tearing through your day like a hamster trying to break the world speed record for spinning its wheel.

Slow down. Give yourself time to think more clearly. Use that thinking time to become more effective at whatever you do. Then use the time that frees up to do even more thinking and improve still further.
You’ll establish a virtuous cycle that will pay big dividends over and over again. You’ll both work less and see more for your efforts.

Isn’t that what productivity really means?

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