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864: How to Design a Career Portfolio that Beats Burnout, Navigates Disruption, and Future-Proofs Your Career with Christina Wallace

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Christina Wallace discusses the benefits of having a diverse work portfolio that will help you weather any storm.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How to diversify your work
  2. How to lessen friction and hit your flow
  3. The three questions that surface your hidden needs 

About Christina 

Christina Wallace is a human Venn diagram with a career at the intersection of business, technology and the arts. A writer, podcaster, serial entrepreneur, and erstwhile theater producer, Christina spent a decade building businesses in New York City. She is currently a Senior Lecturer at Harvard Business School, an active startup mentor, and angel investor. Christina holds undergraduate degrees in mathematics and theater studies from Emory University and an MBA from Harvard. In her free time she likes to sing in choirs, climb mountains, and run marathons (slowly). She lives in Cambridge with her husband and their two energetic children. 

Resources Mentioned

Christina Wallace Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis

Christina, welcome to How to be Awesome at Your Job.

Christina Wallace

Thanks for having me. I’m excited to be here.

Pete Mockaitis

I’m excited, too. We’re talking about The Portfolio Life: How to Future-Proof Your Career, Avoid Burnout, and Build a Life Bigger than Your Business Card. That sounds pretty cool.

Christina Wallace

It’s a lot of promise, right?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, but no pressure, Christina, but we’re going to hold you to every one of these. Could you kick us off by sharing any really surprising, fascinating, counterintuitive discoveries you’ve made while doing the research and putting together this book?

Christina Wallace

So, one of my favorite little tidbits from this, I am someone who is not great at taking time off. Like many type A overachievers, I sort of aspire to be the sort of person who rests, who relaxes. I’m not great at it. And a little part of me has always been, like, slightly, you know, felt some superiority over that, like I work so hard.

And part of the research, when I got into some operations management and some research into sabbaticals and all of this, it was a little bit humbling, where it points out just how important rest and planned downtime is for not just productivity but for happiness, for the ability to not burn out. It seems fairly obvious, you got to have some time to recharge.

But I found some really fantastic research, particularly borrowing from the world in operations management of manufacturing, where the top-performing manufacturing lines only ever schedule 85% of their capacity. They always leave downtime for planned maintenance, for do-overs, for surges. They don’t start from the point of 100%, and then say, “Well, we’ll just do 110% if we have to.”

And I thought that was a good reminder with some great science behind it of why this notion of, like, “Hey, let’s have everyone give 110% all the time” is not realistic. And that’s why we are all in a constant state of burnout.

Pete Mockaitis

Well, Christina, that’s intriguing right there, and you’re bringing me back to fond memories of one time I had a consulting project at one of the world’s largest cookie factories. All day long you could smell that chocolate in the air.

Christina Wallace

Oh, man.

Pete Mockaitis

And so, 85% is a top-performing manufacturing line. I’m curious, what do we know about top-performing humans? So, some sabbatical is good, some vacation is good, some rest is good. Do we know – there’s probably a range based on different temperaments, etc. – what’s optimal for us?

Christina Wallace

Certainly, there’s an expectation of having some downtime every day, every week. You have to have it as part of your practice but I found some research from The Sabbatical Project, DJ DiDonna, one of my colleagues here at HBS has done, that really emphasizes the value of taking a meaningful sabbatical every, call it, ten years or so. And by meaningful, they mean really in the realm of, like, three to six months off, taking a significant intentional break where you have a moment to step back, reflect, and really consider, “What do I want to do for the next chapter?”

And sometimes people come back feeling refreshed and renewed energy to keep doing what they were doing. And sometimes people come back, and say, “Okay, I actually needed that space to realize I want to go off in a different direction or I want to make a major life choice.” But I thought there was an interesting reflection of sort of six months every ten years. Like, that doesn’t seem unreasonable to have, call it three or four sabbaticals over the course of your career. That’s not that much time off.

And, yet, without the intentionality behind it, ten years pops up, and you’re like, “Oh, I can’t take six months off. That feels impossible.” So, it was a nice reminder that with a little bit of planning and strategy, these breaks are absolutely doable.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. And so then, that’s on the sabbatical side of things. I’m curious in terms of a workweek side of things. I’ve seen some studies that suggest a certain number of hours. After that, you’re actually negatively productive. What have you found there?

Christina Wallace

Yes. So, what’s interesting about a portfolio approach is that there’s some research that shows being able to toggle between different activities, different types of working, different types of thinking and interacting, like, collectively helps actually recharge, renew the way that you are working, the energy that you bring to the table.

And so, it’s not sort of just additive. It’s not saying, obviously, there’s research that says 10, 12, 14 hours, at a certain point, there’s diminishing returns if you’re doing the same thing hour after hour. But if you are complementing, say, a day job with a moonlighting gig, a side hustle, or a serious hobby, or something you really love that works a completely different part of you and that offers you a different way of thinking, and of creating, and of interacting, that doesn’t feel like you just pulled a 12- or a 14-hour day. It can actually help you feel rejuvenated.

So, I don’t want you to work 20 hours a day between your side hustle and your day job. There is a breaking point but I think this notion of your total load across your portfolio is a lot more flexible than you might think, depending on what’s in your portfolio.

Pete Mockaitis

And when you talk about a different type of work, sometimes it’s like how we define different is really kind of fluid. Because, in some ways, it’s like, well, I’ve got two companies. One is in the world of training and people development, and the other is in the world of outsourcing and media production. And so, in some ways, it’s saying, because we’re dealing with words and thinking about words and making words good.

Christina Wallace

Sure. And you’re still writing emails and trying to make the numbers balanced, and maybe making a slide or two. Like, I can see how that could feel like the very same work but managing a different project. When I think about maybe a different ways of working, I think about some of the folks in my book where one person, by day, is a teacher, and then her moonlighting project is writing novels for middle grade readers.

And so, by day, she was dealing with 4th graders, and their sticky hands, and how to teach them math, and how to teach them emotional maturity, and all of these things. And then, by night, she’s inventing these stories and sort of just going deep into this continuous creativity in these worlds that she’s building. That’s a very different way. Like, one allows her to recharge after she’s been giving and giving and giving all day long to her students.

So, you’re absolutely right, that really can come down to, like, “What is that mix? And do they complement each other? Or, are you just doing the same thing but in a different context?”

Pete Mockaitis

And when it comes to recharging-ness, is there a means by which you recommend people reflect, or assess, or gauge that?

Christina Wallace

So, one of the tactics that I recommend for putting together your portfolio is an assessment of two things. One is what do you need to be your best self? And everyone’s needs are going to be a little different. Your needs are going to be a little different depending on the chapter or season of life you’re in but you will likely have some combination of financial needs, growth needs, community needs. There could be other elements of security that you have needs, that need to be met.

And then, in addition to your needs, you’re going to have a set of wants, or, as I like to call them, your wishes. What are the big things that you care about doing, seeing, experiencing, leaving behind by the end of your life? We’re talking this could be minor, “I want to run a marathon.” These could be major, “I want to, I don’t know, walk on the moon,” so whatever. Putting together this kind of list of wishes for your life.

And as you’re assembling your portfolio, you want to be thoughtful of, like, “Are the different things that I do over the course of my day, or my week, or my month, collectively, are my needs being met?” We got to start there, “Are my needs being met?” If you’re doing two or three or four things that all maybe make you money, but they’re all solo projects, you have no colleagues, you’re not being given this community or this opportunity to just have conversations with other humans, you’re over-indexing on one need and your under-indexing on another.

And so, as you think about recharging and rebalancing, it’s, like, “Am I getting my needs met across my day, my week? And am I having a good balance across these things?” The wishes piece is relevant, too, “Am I doing all of this work and all of it only goes toward one or two or a handful of things that I care about? Or, do I have a nice breadth across what I’m doing that maybe this thing gets me closer to this professional goal, and that work gets me closer to this crazy artistic goal that maybe I even felt weird about writing down because it seems so out of this world but I kind of really do want to do before I die?”

Pete Mockaitis

All right. And I imagine it’s a common experience for people to not even be aware that they have a need of a particular flavor or stripe. Any suggestions on how to surface those?

Christina Wallace

I think part of this is the reflection or the delving into stories, into your past experiences, and having that opportunity to say, like, “When have I been my best self? And when have I haven’t? Like, what are those moments where I found myself crying at work or doing less than I thought I could or should be able to?” I’ll give you an example, one of my needs is an office with a door that closes.

I do not do well in open office plans. And I have so many examples of working in startups and other organizations where I loved the work, I was a good fit for my role, I had great relationships, everything felt like it should be clicking, but I was in an open office plan where I couldn’t focus. I have high sensitivity to sounds. I couldn’t focus. I was always being interrupted. I couldn’t get into a flow, ever. And that friction wore at me every day to the point where I couldn’t do what I was there to do.

So, I made that on my checklist, of like, “When I’m at my best is when I’m able to shut the door and be able to focus.” And so, in some ways, if you’re just starting out, you might not have a good sense of your needs yet, and that’s okay. But if you’ve been at this a while, or if you have that opportunity to look back and reflect, whether it’s in school or in your jobs, where are you at your best? And where did you find sort of constant friction that you’re like, “Ugh, it doesn’t have to be this way”? That’s a great place to start to surface your needs.

Pete Mockaitis

Well, Christina, now I’m thinking about the notion of friction and some philosophies saying, “Well, hey, if it doesn’t kill you, it makes you stronger. And if you can endure that, you’re going to grow and get tougher. And we’ve got it so easy in the 21st century with all of our luxuries and conveniences and comforts, and maybe we need a little friction to toughen us up.” What do you think about this perspective, Christina?

Christina Wallace

So, I hear you, a little bit of friction, not necessarily a bad thing but here’s maybe my counterpoint to that. Many of us, I might argue all of us, are what I would call weirdly shaped puzzle pieces. We all have a different set of skills, and communication styles, and interests, and personality quirks, and all of these things that we bring to the table when we show up over the course of our lives. And there are rooms that have a space that is shaped like your puzzle piece, and then there are rooms that don’t.

And if you try to shove your strangely shaped puzzle piece into what is a nice, square, neat opening, maybe it’s the last piece we’re waiting to put in this puzzle, and you don’t fit, if you try to shove yourself in there, you’re going to have to carve off a meaningful amount of yourself in order to even approximate what they’re looking for.

And I think there are lots of folks who feel this on a daily basis, whether it’s code switching, or whether it’s just the adjustments they make to who they are in order to feel acceptable on a team, at a company. And you realize that, on any given day, it’s not that big of a deal, but every day for years on end, you’re literally using some percentage of your energy, your mental capacity just to show up and be able to do your job, which leaves so much less to do the job itself.

And I think one of the biggest learnings I had through my 20s was that I would rather find the rooms that wanted what I had to offer than try to squeeze myself into a box that didn’t fit me, or into a hole in the puzzle that didn’t fit me. And part of that work was really uncovering what the shape of my puzzle piece was, what do I show with, what do I have to offer, and why is that actually awesome. And so, the people who do want me really do want me.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. And I’m thinking right now just about an experience I had recently. So, nowadays, with three young kiddos, I find I’m spending most of my mornings hanging out with them, watching them, taking care of things.

Christina Wallace

How old are they?

Pete Mockaitis

They are five, four, and six months.

Christina Wallace

I’ve got a three and a one-year-old.

Pete Mockaitis

Yeah. And then some things happen in terms of travel where I have the opportunity to just wake up and start doing some work at 7:00 a.m., and it felt absolutely amazing. It’s like, “Wow, I didn’t even know.” I thought, “Oh, I guess I used to do this a lot. I don’t think I even remembered that that was a thing I did that worked really well for me, and I have been not doing that, and I miss it.”

And so, in a way that’s kind of tricky, it’s like, “Well, what’s to be done?” There’s probably some clever things to happen there but I guess, Christina, where you’re nudging me here is one response to that internally is, “Oh, hey, man, that’s just the stage of life we’re in, you know. We got to take care of the kids in the morning. That’s where it’s at.”

But I’m thinking, with your puzzle piece analogy, perhaps you might advocate it’s worth putting some serious thought and effort into thinking, “Is there an arrangement by which this creative morning, productive, energized groove can be deployed in that direction because it’s worthwhile to do so?”

Christina Wallace
Yeah, I think your example is perfect on two dimensions. One is you get to see sort of the difference between what is it like to have that friction versus just to hit your flow. And I think, from like a metaphorically standpoint, that’s exactly the difference between being in a room that wants you and being in a room that doesn’t.

Or, a version of you, if you would, like, soften these things and change that thing, and don’t use too many exclamation points in your emails. But in the same way, I think that’s a perfect example of, you are at a stage of life where your mornings, for the most part, look a certain way. And so, the question is, “Is there an opportunity to either create a version of this that gives you that creative morning, maybe some sort of an arrangement with your partner, or figuring out how you set up your morning differently?”

And if you were working at a company or somewhere else where you had a manager or a boss, there might be a situation where you say, like, “Hey, can I adjust my hours? Can I think about maybe working from home in the mornings so I can get the kids out, and then I can have a couple of hours before I have to sit in traffic, or a couple of days from home?” Like, there’s a way to be thoughtful about, “How can I construct the context of how I do my work to maybe lower some of that friction and give me that opportunity to hit flow better?”

So, I am now a professor. For this stage of my life with young children, this is what fit me better than running a startup. And, as part of what I need, I have the same morning experience, getting my kids out the door, off to daycare, all these things. I can’t teach before 9:30, like it just doesn’t work, and I’m in the position to say that, and to proactively design my day to fit the needs that I have for this stage.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. Thank you. All right. Well, we just jumped into a lot of specific things because you kept fascinating me, Christina. And now, maybe I’ll zoom out a little bit. So, this book The Portfolio Life seems like we’ve got some taste for what it’s about. But could you articulate the core big idea or thesis here for us?

Christina Wallace

Sure. So, this idea, everyone is likely familiar with a portfolio from a financial standpoint, you build your financial portfolio with a mix allocation across stocks, bonds, real estate, whatever these assets are that fits the stage of life you’re in, that matches the risks and the returns that you need. And then, as your life changes, you rebalance that portfolio to rematch what you need at that stage. And this is taking that exact approach but applying it to not just your career but your life. I think career is a huge part of many of our lives but it is in the context of your life.

And so, what does that look like? It means that you are assembling work, hobbies, relationships, family time, community time, rest, you’re designing an allocation of your time across these different pieces in a way that meets your needs and moves you forward toward your goals. And what that can look like is several sources of income. It can look like a meaningful sort of hobby or growth opportunity, a project, something you want to learn more about, that you’re going to dive into, that then sets you up for your next professional zigzag.

It could mean keeping your hands in a lot of different buckets, a lot of different communities and networks, you say, “Well, I came from this world, I’m now in this world, I care a lot about that world, and I’m going to stay connected to all of them.” And the reason I advocate for this approach, one, it actually matches much better the full sort of three-dimensional version of who you are as a person. Very few people, from the day they’re born to the day they die, say, “You know, I really am, and I only am, a marketing manager in a pharmaceutical company. Like, that’s who I am. That’s it.” Like, we all have these different aspects.

And so, it’s a way to reflect on and mimic this three-dimensional version of you rather than having your identity be formed by your job. But, secondly, it sets you up with diversification and flexibility to better weather this constant state of disruption that we are now in. This world, whether it is bank collapses, or ecological disasters, or technological advancements, like AI that are going to massively change the face of white-collar work in the next five years. Whatever these things are, they’re coming at us, lifechanging disruptions every three, five, seven years. This is a pace of change the previous generations never had to deal with.

And so, thinking about your career and your life through a portfolio that helps you diversify and build some flexibility against that disruption is truly the only way you’re going to navigate this without having the rug pulled out from under you, like many folks have had in the last few months.

Pete Mockaitis

So, can you share with us perhaps a story that brings that to bear? Like, “Ooh, here’s someone who did not have a portfolio, and, uh-oh, look how that went down,” versus someone who did, and, “Oh, what a softer landing and what it provided for them.”

Christina Wallace

Sure. I have a great example of this. Heading into the pandemic, I come from an artistic background. I went to a boarding school for the arts, I trained as a classical musician, and I majored in theater among other things, and so I know a lot of folks in the arts. And I used a lot of case studies in the book of folks that have a creative pursuit as part of their portfolio.

Going into the pandemic, I have a lot of friends who were actors, directors, designers on Broadway who went from being gainfully employed at the top of their industry to having, literally, no income for two years while live performances were shut down. And many of them had sort of a backup job as a waiter or a bartender. That’s how a lot of actors make their work between gigs but a lot of those jobs got shut down, too. So, there were a huge number of artists in New York who just, literally, had no income for up to two years, minus whatever unemployment checks they were able to collect. And it was devastating. Many of them are still digging out from under that.

But I have one friend, Carla Stickler, who, in addition to being an actress, she was the understudy for Elphaba in Wicked for many, many years, a fantastic Broadway actress, in addition to that, she started learning to code. Many years ago, she took a bootcamp through the Flatiron School. She wasn’t really sure what she wanted to do with it but it interested her, and she decided to learn more.

And so, between gigs, backstage, when she wasn’t in a scene, she was working on code, building projects, writing apps. And when the pandemic came, she’s like, “Well, I didn’t think I was ready to leave Broadway, but I think Broadway is ready to leave me, so it’s time to pivot.” And she took her coding resume, and went out and got a job as an engineer at a startup, and was able to seamlessly move into the world of tech startups, and has a thriving career now as an engineer in Chicago, and was able to navigate that unexpected disruption so much better than her peers.

And what I think is fascinating about Carla, I’m sort of giving away the ending here, but it’s not like she walked away from performing altogether. She kept teaching a little bit. She had a private voice studio. She stayed in touch with folks. And when Broadway came back, this is right around the time that, like, the Omicron surged, it became problematic, they reopened, they started performing again, and then there was this big variant that took out, it was devastating.

It took out a lot of performers really quickly, and Broadway started going through their list of understudies, and backup understudies, and swings, and backup, backup swings. And they got to the point where they needed an Elphaba, they had no one else to perform. They, literally, called Carla in Chicago, she got on a plane to New York, had one rehearsal, and went on stage, painted green, flying 40 feet over the stage, singing, literally, the hardest role on Broadway. And then she got off stage and, two days later, went back to her coding job in Chicago.

So, I think that is a great example of how you can have a mix of skills and interests and networks that maybe you’re not monetizing just yet but can position you to have optionality and flexibility when the time comes.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. Cool. And so, as we think about this design process, you mentioned doing reflection associated with seeing when have you been at your best and when have you been at your worst. Are there any other ways to help surface that which is going to help keep us feeling alive and flourishing as well as surfacing cool opportunities to get after those things?

Christina Wallace

So, one of my favorite tools, I developed this short list of questions after my first startup failed. I had built this company, we had raised the money, we thought it was going to be amazing, spoiler, it was not. And I had this moment of complete and total sort of paralyzation. I was like, “I don’t know who I am. I don’t know what I have to offer. I don’t know why anyone would want to hire me,” and tried to be reflective, tried to journal and figure out what I brought to the table, and I was coming up with a blank piece of paper.

And so, I went out and had coffee, a lot of coffee, with basically everyone in my network. I did, like, 70 coffee chats in 30 days. That was overkill. You don’t have to do that many. But I went out and asked the folks who had known me the longest and some who’ve actually only known me a few months. I asked them three questions.

Number one, “When have you seen me happiest?” Number two, “What do you come to me for? Like, what is that moment where you go, ‘Oh, I should see what Christina thinks about this.’?” And then, number three, “Where do I stand out against my peers?” Because one of the things that I recognize was there might be, like, a superpower that I bring that is easy for me and so I don’t even realize how valuable it is elsewhere.

And having those same three questions kind of across all these conversations helped pull out some themes that really gave me an insight into where I should go next. And then, once I had something more specific of, like, “I’m looking for this type of a role, in this type of an industry, with this type of a job title or an opportunity,” then my network could surface those opportunities because I was being really specific.

I wasn’t saying, like, “Hey, do you know anyone who’s hiring?” I was like, “Do you know anyone who’s hiring a general manager role for a company, not based in New York, that wants to expand to New York, and who’s at a seed or series A stage of financing in the startup world?” Like, super specific. And I landed that job in a couple of days.

So, part of this is, like, you can do some self-reflection, and there are great exercises in the book to do that but you can also go and ask the people who know you what they see when they look at you. And you might be surprised that some parts of you that you don’t even realize are that exciting or valuable really stand out to other people.

Pete Mockaitis

And could you share with us a couple things you heard when you had these 70 conversations that surprised you, like, “Huh, how about that?”

Christina Wallace

So, one of the interesting things when I asked them when they had seen me happiest, the consensus was when I was in charge of my own calendar, meaning I’m not afraid of working hard. I work hard. I work a lot. But I want to do it on my own terms. And for a while, I had been at a consulting firm for one of these big national consulting, international consulting firms. And in client services, you jump when the client says jump, and I didn’t have control over my calendar, and I wasn’t able to slot in the things I cared about or show up for the people that I wanted to show up for. And it really made me miserable.

So, I came out of that realizing, like, “Okay, me and client services, like not a good fit. What do they come to me for?” They come to me to help find the story. So, whether it’s their resume, or it’s a product they want to launch, or it’s just connecting the dots of, like, “I did this thing and that thing and the other thing,” and I’m like, “I don’t see how they connect but I’m sure they do.” I can give them the language. I can help them find the story and frame it in such a way. It’s sort of a communication skill.

And then, “Where do I stand out against my peers?” I thrive in moments of uncertainty. I’m really good at the zero to two stage of company-building, or a project generation, or launching a play, whatever that thing is. Going from an idea to a thing, and getting other people excited by it, onboard with it, and all driving in the same direction, is where I excel.

I’m less great at the 10- to 100-stage, where you’re optimizing something that already exists. And so, I thought that was really helpful to be, like, “You know what, I should stay in early-stage startups or in creative projects, like producing theater, where going from nothing to something is what’s on the table.

Pete Mockaitis

Cool. All right. That’s very clear. And I could see how, in your world, it’s just like, well, yes, it’s kind of, “Isn’t everybody good with that?” how strings can be hidden in that kind of a way. Okay. Well, then can you share, so that’s sort of the insight, personal, wisdom gathering there. And then what are your top tips in terms of surfacing cool opportunities and things to put into your portfolio?

Christina Wallace

A lot of this comes down to your network. There’s some great research I referenced in the book that a lot of the opportunities don’t come from the people you know but the people they know, second-generation networks. And part of helping that one level-removed network surface things that might be interesting requires you to be really specific on what you’re looking for.

And so, that is sort of a two-pronged approach. One part is having the language to talk about who you are, what you’re looking for, and how someone might be able to help you. That was what I needed after I did all these coffee chats, coming up with the specific asks. And then the second thing was keeping in touch with those networks so they know that you’re looking for help, that you want something to surface up.

And this can be a challenge if you sit in multiple worlds, as I do, I have built a career at the intersection of business, technology, and the arts. Those are somewhat overlapping but, in many ways, distinct communities. To stay connected to them takes effort, it takes relationship-building over time not just sort of networking where I show up with a business card and throw it in everyone’s hands. But doing that allows me to stay top of mind, and having a very clear ask allows them to surface things that might be really interesting.

Because a lot of what people love, can get excited about, is really these opportunistic things rather than the, “What’s your five-year plan?” The five-year plan thing hardly worked for our parents. I don’t think it can work for any of us because there are so much that is changing and there are so much that’s unknown. So, having much more of an emergent strategy rather than a deliberate strategy is what’s going to be effective here. And to do that, you have to stay connected.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. Well, Christina, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and  hear about some of your favorite things?

Christina Wallace

I think that’s it.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. Could you tell us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Christina Wallace

Madeleine Albright, “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.”

Pete Mockaitis

All right. And a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Christina Wallace

Clay Christensen and his team, when they were writing The Innovator’s DNA, interviewed and studied hundreds of the most creative innovative people, and they identified these five traits that make up the DNA, that make up kind of how these people worked. And at the core of these five traits, the backbone that the other four sort of rotate around, like the double helix of DNA, is the power of associating.

That’s the ability to connect seemingly unconnected ideas, or networks, or industries. That is what made people the most innovative. So, it doesn’t require you to have a net new idea, a cutting-edge technology. It often can come from just being connected and translating something you’ve seen in one world into another.

Pete Mockaitis

All right. And a favorite book?

Christina Wallace

Oh, man, I think it’s probably an upcoming book. I can still call it a favorite because I got to read an advanced copy. It’s called The Anxious Achiever by Morra Aarons-Mele.

Pete Mockaitis

Oh, Morra. She’s on the show.

Christina Wallace

Yeah, it is just I feel like it was written for me and, like, all of my friends.

Pete Mockaitis

All right. And a favorite tool?

Christina Wallace

Trello. I live and die by Trello. I’ve probably been using this Trello board for, like, 12 years.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. And a favorite habit?

Christina Wallace

Putting my phone away an hour before I go to bed.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. And a key nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks; they quote it back to you often?

Christina Wallace

Honestly, it comes from one of the pieces of my book, “There’s no such thing as a left-brained or a right-brained person.” This is fake science that was misinterpreted from a real study back in the 1960s. And so, this notion that we are one or the other, logical or creative, it’s not true. You are both.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Christina Wallace

PortfolioLife.com or you can follow me on LinkedIn or Instagram.

Pete Mockaitis

And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Christina Wallace

Honestly, I would go and talk to your boss, talk to your manager about the thing that you want to try, or learn more about, or explore this year that has nothing to do with your current job description, and see if there’s a way to get a stretch assignment, or a rotation, or a zigzag promotion that allows you to sort of expand that portfolio even in the context of your day job.

Pete Mockaitis

All right. Christina, this has been a treat. I wish you much luck and fun in your portfolio.

Christina Wallace

Thank you so much.

854: Mastering Your Surprise Career Super Power: Notetaking with Anh Dao Pham

By | Podcasts | 3 Comments

 

Anh Dao Pham shares pro tips on developing the most underrated skill that makes a world of difference: note-taking.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Why note-taking is a powerful differentiator
  2. The four-hour investment that ends up saving hundreds of hours
  3. How to synthesize your notes for maximum impact

About Anh

Anh Dao Pham, VP of Product & Program Management at Edmunds.com, has successfully led technical projects for two decades at start-ups and major corporations. In her book Glue: How Project Leaders Create Cohesive, Engaged, High-Performing Teams, Anh vividly brings compassionate, positive, nimble leadership to life, demonstrating with actionable guidance, the power of caring and connection to inspire outstanding results.

Anh lives with her husband and two children in Los Angeles, California.

Resources Mentioned

Anh Dao Pham Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Anh, welcome back to How to be Awesome at Your Job.

Anh Dao Pham
Thank you so much for having me back, Pete.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to chat, and I think this may be the shortest follow-up interview we’ve ever had with a guest because you teased note-taking. I asked, listeners said, “Yes, yes, yes” numerous times, so we’re back, we’re talking note-taking, and I’m excited.

Anh Dao Pham
I’m excited, too. I’m always thrilled when people tell me they’re excited about note-taking because I always feel like I’m such a geek when I talk about it, but it is such an important skill so I’m so delighted that some of your listeners were interested in this topic, and I’m hoping that we give them what they want.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, me, too. And I thought we might start with, I know you use jingles to celebrate and commemorate things, any recent jingles that have tickled you and/or your teammates?

Anh Dao Pham
I haven’t written a jingle recently but I did write a very short “Roses are red, violets are blue” for you here.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, boy.

Anh Dao Pham
Just two, just so that…a couple here. First,

“Roses are red, violets are blue
Hello there, Pete,
I’m happy to see you.”

I thought it was nice for us to be together again, so thank you for that. And then the second for your note-taking crew,

“Roses are red, violets are blue
note-taking is awesome
And so are you.”

So, hopefully, everybody gets excited at this point about note-taking.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s right. And heartwarming. All right. Okay, Anh, you mentioned in the last conversation that note-taking is your superpower. Can you tell us what’s super about it and why should professionals spend time working on this skill?

Anh Dao Pham
Well, note-taking has a ton of advantages. I feel like it’s one of the most underrated skills that we just don’t ever think about investing in. And, for me, it’s been so important to my career that I’d call it the cornerstone of my career. It’s like that one skill that, whenever I talk to people, I say, “You really have to think about note-taking,” and they’re always like, “Yeah, yeah, Anh, that sounds great but I may be not that interested.” But, to me, there’s really a few different benefits.

The first is people’s perception of you, and this is something that I don’t think people think about, but if you’ve, in particular, been in any sort of leadership position where you’re facilitating a meeting or having a discussion with people, and they see you taking notes and you’re typing, and you type slowly, their perception of you is not that you’re necessarily the smartest person.

And this is something that I feel like goes unspoken, but if you watch somebody typing, and they’re like pecking at the keyboard, you might perceive that they’re not as intelligent as they actually are. And that’s, I don’t think, an accurate representation in any way but it does affect people’s perception, in particular, if you’re facilitating a meeting and you’re taking notes slowly, and you’re slowing down the entire meeting.

Their perception of you is not that great. And so, I think mastering good note-taking is important just to make sure that people have a certain amount of respect for you when you’re doing your job if you’re taking notes.

The second is, at least for me, note-taking has been something that’s really made my learning process efficient. So, one of the things that I do, I do religiously in all of my meetings, is take notes. Whether or not I’m going to publish them or not, I take notes. And, for me, it just crystallizes my learning on things so it’s a part of my learning process.

And I started taking notes when I was in college. I was a math major and I was pretty lazy in summary cards. You don’t think of mathematicians as lazy but we kind of are. We’re looking for the most efficient way to do things, or maybe we’re advocates of efficiency is a better way to put it. But I was also a very slow reader. I just couldn’t go through textbooks. And anytime I was studying for a course and you had to read multiple chapters in the textbook, I just couldn’t get through that material.

And I had stumbled upon an article about note-taking, and they said, basically, if you take notes in some sort of structured format, then it improves your recall ability dramatically. And so, what I did was I just started taking notes in outline format, which is like a really traditional way to do it, in all of my lectures, and it was so effective when I was in college that I actually stopped buying the textbooks, like I didn’t read them.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, there you go.

Anh Dao Pham
Yeah, I went to lectures, I took good notes, and then I reviewed the notes, and most of the time, the professors would cover the material that was needed from the textbook in their lectures. And so, if I took good notes, I didn’t actually need to purchase the textbook anymore. So, after a couple of quarters, I just stopped altogether, so it saved me a ton of money, and I did well in those courses. I did pretty well.

I was at UCLA, and I got a pretty decent GPA coming out of college. So, it was really, really effective for me and has, to this day, been one of the reasons why people often compliment me on my memory. They’re always like, “You have such a great memory.” It’s like, “No, actually, I just spend a lot of time processing the information through note-taking, and that crystallizes my learning in a way that I feel like other people who were not participating as much, will have that as an advantage.”

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. And in your book Glue, on the chapter about note-taking, you mentioned that when you are consistently taking notes and sending them out, you’re really effectively cementing the impression of being a subject matter expert to those that you’re sending the notes to. Can you tell us about that?

Anh Dao Pham
That’s right. Absolutely. I see note-taking as a way to actually get informal power, and so I tell people that information is power. And when you capture information and you send it out and distribute it, you start to become seen as a subject matter expert on the information that you’re putting out there. There’s a misconception that you capture information and some people will capture information and hoard it as a source of power, but to me it’s actually the opposite.

If you think about, let’s say, reputable newspapers or content sites, the reason that people see them as an expert is because they put their content out there. And then when people think of a topic or a question, they know where to go for that information, and note-taking happens in the same way. So, if you’re the person who consistently is taking notes and then sending them out, and they’re good notes, then the people will start to see you as that person who knew this information, publishes information, and a place that they can go to get the information.

And that shifts the dynamic from somebody who’s just sort of a bystander in a meeting to somebody who actually holds information and is somebody who has a certain amount of power and influence in the situation.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, now my brain is going to Bob Cialdini who endorsed your book. Kudos.

Anh Dao Pham
He’s amazing.

Pete Mockaitis
He’s one of my favorites. We were delighted to have him on the show when we finally got him. So, anyways, I’m thinking about the tools or principles of influence – reciprocity. I’m just thinking about how many times folks have been able to miss meetings either because they just want to save some time, or they really had some other obligations going on, and they were able to look to your notes to really save the day.

And so, I’m thinking, over your career, you’ve done that for many people many times, and I would hope that that gives you a little bit of sway when it’s time for you to ask for some help or some favors or some assistance.

Anh Dao Pham
Yeah, I would agree with that a hundred percent. The principle of reciprocity, I cannot even say that word, reciprocity is another thing that I talk about in the book, and also think a lot about in my career. And the interesting thing about that principle is that it’s not about giving something to get in that specific moment. It’s about establishing a pattern of giving and giving that benefit to other people so that at the time that you go to them at a later date, they actually are able to reciprocate and to provide something back to you because they’ve had that good feeling from you if you’re giving them something.

And I get this all the time, “Oh, I miss the meeting. Thank you so much for the recap. I was able to catch up.” In fact, oftentimes, the notes are way more efficient than being in the meeting. In particular, if you don’t need to be an active participant in the meeting to have the discussion but you need to understand what the outcome is, the notes are tremendously helpful.

I’ve had times before where, as an example most recently, one of our legal team members was asked a question, and he was searching through all of his documentation for anything about a particular discussion, and he said, “The most helpful information I found was actually from this recap that Anh took.” And I went back and looked at the notes, I was like, “I don’t remember this discussion at all. I’m so glad that we wrote it all down.”

And office settings often, in particular when you’re moving very fast, there isn’t a lot of things, there aren’t a lot of people who actually document things. And so, when you start doing that, it becomes often the system of record for whatever the discussion was that happened, and it helps all the people thereafter, either in the moment because they missed it, in some sort of a reminder capacity, like, “I can’t remember exactly what we talked about. I remember we covered this at some point.” Or, even very much later, like through this legal inquiry, some indicator of what was actually discussed and why we did it.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s beautiful. Well, shifting gears now into the how, you mentioned that in some ways, just your sheer typing speed is foundational. Can you speak to that?

Anh Dao Pham
Yes, typing speed is extremely important. Actually, out there, there are studies that talk about note-taking and how taking notes with a pen and pencil is actually more effective in terms of your ability to remember things. I actually believe that that’s kind of bunk but there are studies about that. I think the active, actually, taking information and then participating in it, that actually crystallizes things.

If you’re in an office setting, I would argue that typing is the equivalent of doing that pen and paper activity as long as you’re actually participating. But in order to be able to participate, you can’t be slowed down by your own skill to capture the information, so typing speed is extremely important. And I always tell people, if I notice them not typing as fast as I think that they can, to spend some time investing in themselves in that typing speed.

We always have people complain about how they don’t have enough time in their day, and if you spend a lot of time actually responding to emails or reading things or writing memos, this is a place where you can actually improve your efficiency significantly, and it doesn’t actually take that much investment. When I actually started typing, I was in high school, actually my transition from high school to college, and I attempted to go and get a job at a temp agency.

And at the time, I think I was around 18 or so. I got tested for my typing speed, and I came in at something like 40 words per minute. I’d never actually put in a concerted effort to improve my typing speed. And the people who were helping with the hiring said frankly to me, “Hey, this is just not going to cut it. Nobody is going to hire you for a temp position if you don’t get this typing speed up.”

And at the time I went home, and I happen to find a really old spiral-bound typing speed book that my mom had used when she was younger. And I picked it up, and I did a handful of drills, and I think I spent maybe three or four hours or so just doing a handful of drills. And then a couple days later, I went back and took the test again, and my typing speed was up to 60 words per minute.

So, it wasn’t actually that big of an investment. And if you think, if you currently type 45 words per minute and you can increase your typing speed to 60 words per minute, that’s like a pretty significant improvement in your efficiency, and it doesn’t take that much to invest in yourself to get that typing speed up. So, I feel like everybody should take a moment to do that if they haven’t already.

It’s funny, because when I say this or when people read the book, they’re like, “I went and tested myself, like right after I read that chapter.” And they’re always reporting their typing speed to me, I was like, “Great. Great. Do that.”

Pete Mockaitis
“Thank you.” You’ve seen a lot of these unsolicited reports. Well, you’re bringing some fond memories back. I remember I found a transcriptionist and he was so gung-ho. I think it was in one of those contractor platforms, like Fiverr or Upwork or something, and he said, “I’ve already started on it, and you can see.” And then he showed the Google Document which he was transcribing quickly, I was like, “Okay, there you go. That’s impressive.”

As well as he had a video in his portfolio, he was like, “Look at me on TypeRacer.com,” which is a website I’ve been to, to see, “Sure enough, you can type very fast.” And that’s impressive, and not just when you’re hiring a transcriptionist but for any number of roles. And I think there was an episode of “The Apprentice” back in the day.

I think maybe Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, why I remember this, maybe because it left an impression. He was typing so slowly, I was shocked.

Anh Dao Pham
And didn’t it affect your perception of him?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, it did, and I already knew, like he’s a fraudster criminal, and it made it worse, and he can’t type fast. So, it makes an impression. I just want to mention, so right now, AI is so hot right now, and the ability for automated transcription to occur. What are your thoughts on that? Does that make it less important to be able to type quickly?

Anh Dao Pham
No, I think that, at the end of the day, typing is a way of processing information, so it depends on what you’re trying to use it for. Like, as an example, if you’re going to transcribe a podcast and you’re putting it out there because you want the content out there, then I think there’s absolutely no harm in doing some sort of automated transcription. You’re not actually trying to learn the material or do something with it. You’re just trying to make it available.

But, for me, the main reason I like to do note-taking or that I practice it religiously is because it does help me learn. And so, if you’re taking advantage of a tool to do that work for you, you actually lose out on the benefit of processing the information. When I think about typing and taking notes, the reason that it helps improve your memory is that you’re processing information multiple ways.

So, let’s say you’re in a meeting and you’re taking good notes, you’re listening to the information that’s coming in, and then you’re participating in the meeting, so, obviously, you’re likely there because you have some role to play. So, you’re participating in having some discussion, that’s like two ways, “I’m listening. I’m talking.” That’s another way to process the information.

And then if I actually write it down, I’m processing it a third way. So, all in the span of a one-hour meeting, I’ve now triple-processed the information. And it’s not just about writing the information down, but if you actually take the time to reorganize the information or write it in your own words, then you’re processing it another time. So, you’re like taking in the information and then outputting it in a way that is in your own words so that you can confirm that understanding.

So, all in that span of time, if you’re using your fast note-taking abilities and processing all this information, that information is going to get crystallized in your brain in a way that other people who are just listening or just speaking and not taking in all those different activities at the same time are not going to have to their advantage. So, that’s why you’ll come out of the meeting and learn this information so much more quickly.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. So, let’s say we have invested just a few hours in our typing speed, and it’s gone way up. Cool. Tremendous return on investment there. So, then let’s zoom in. We’re in an actual meeting, we’ve got our laptop, and our fast typing skills. I’m wondering if folks, right from the get-go, are thinking, “Is this even appropriate for me to whip out the laptop and be clanking away? Is this something that’s going to be distracting, annoying? Is this just more for junior people?” Can you talk to us about any resistance folks might have in the moment?

Anh Dao Pham
It’s really funny because I used to work in a startup called Opower, and at the time, I was the first person there who was a program manager. I was director of program management, and I was in charge of hiring other people for my team. And when I put out the job description, we put out an exercise. And in the exercise, it was just a handful of questions that the job applicants had to answer in advance. And one of the questions I’d put on there was, “How fast do you type?”

And the funniest thing about that question was it was the most controversial and telling question on the pre-application. Some people would write back, and the answers were so funny.

Pete Mockaitis
“It shouldn’t matter how fast I type.”

Anh Dao Pham
Exactly. Like, we did. We actually got responses like that, like, “This is not an admin job” was one of the responses, or, “I’m a hunt and pecker,” which was so funny to respond that way, but people were actually offended about this question, that they felt like it was beneath them. And, to me, that’s really telling when it’s like you should have the humility to do this work if it needs to be done on your project. So, if you’re thinking you’re above that, in any job, in anything that makes you better at your job, you should be willing and want to do.

And so, I feel like if there’s an ego there about it, you’re just shooting yourself on the foot by not taking advantage of this particular skill or this opportunity to do that. But I do see resistance because there is a certain amount of ego with it. Now, I would say, though, that most of the time the ego is coupled with a lack of skill. So, it’s like, “Why would you push back on it if you could do it?” It just seems like an odd combination. So, we do see some of that resistance.

Now, in the scope of actual meetings, and I come from a project management background but now I also do product management work, and I’m on the executive team, and I still go into meetings and take notes. And you would think, like, “Hey, as Anh moves up in her career, she’s going to do this less.” It’s like, no, actually, I’m not because, again, I think it becomes a very valuable resource, it’s important for my learning process, and people really appreciate it. So, why wouldn’t I continue to do that?

And people have come to know that I do this. They will rely on this skill, sometimes maybe too much, but they’ll rely on this skill, and this is something they can count on with me if they’re not able to attend a meeting, it’s like, “Hey, are you attending? Could you share your notes with me?” That’s like a huge benefit for them and it’s something that I think I’m always going to do.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. That’s good. And no one has ever said, “Hey, cut it out,” or looked annoyed, like, “Ugh, your keyboard noise is such a distraction and annoying us, Anh.”

Anh Dao Pham
No, actually. And I do have long nails so I do clank a little bit on the keyboard. Now, if I’m in a meeting or on a Zoom or something, and you can hear the clanking, then I’ll mute myself so that it doesn’t happen. The only thing I would say is if you’re maybe on a one-on-one situation, and you’re sitting there, staring at your computer while you’re taking notes, or you’re concentrating so much on that, that’s not a great situation.

Some of those smaller form meetings, you might want to pay more attention to the conversation, or you might at least give a prerequisite or preamble before you actually start taking notes, like, “Hey, I’m going to be taking notes, but the reason I’m taking notes is because I’m listening to you so intently, and I want to make sure that I’m capturing this information.”

So, you can give that up front so that people know that that’s important to you for the purposes of this meeting. I’ve actually participated in interviews with companies before where the interviewer, it was just me and him, and he said, “Hey, this is a part of my process, so just know when I’m staring intently into the camera, I’m taking notes and it’s not you. It’s because I’m really trying to listen and make sure that I captured everything.”

So, I think you can phrase it in such a way, with whoever you’re meeting with, to let them know that this is an important part of the process, and that’s why you’re doing it, and that should cut out any hesitation for you taking on that task.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, we got the typing speed up, hesitations are behind us, we’re in the moment, what do we actually do?

Anh Dao Pham
So, there’s a couple phases in the book I break this down on note-taking. In the very beginning of a project, oftentimes, you’ll start a project and not actually know what’s going on. And so, if you’re in a meeting and you’re trying to facilitate and you’re trying to take notes, sometimes that’s very difficult. And so, I call this phase the fake-it-till-you-make-it phase.

And the idea here is you’re listening intently, you’re asking questions when you don’t understand things, but you’re trying not to slow down the discussion or the meeting. And so, one thing you can do is if there are things that you really need clarification on, you can sort of jot them down. Sometimes I’ll create my own private note section, like, “Note to myself: Ask about this later because I don’t want to slow this down.”

But in the span of the meeting, what you want to do is try to capture the most salient points, the most important things, and there’s really only a couple of categories. One is, “What are the key decisions that are being made?” And then, two is, “Are there any sort of follow-up items or action items? And who’s going to be responsible for those?”

And in a meeting where you don’t exactly know what’s going on, and sometimes maybe they’re even using jargon that you don’t fully understand, the most important thing is to write down accurately what is being stated. And if you’re unsure, you can always prompt somebody, like, “Hey, I heard this word. It sounds like a decision was made. Is that true? If so, can somebody just restate the decision for clarity?”

And when you do that, it actually helps the meeting because, oftentimes, people will say, “Okay, great.” They’ll have a discussion and they’ll seem to have come to some sort of consensus, and then they’ll move on, but nobody actually stated the decision at the very end. And sometimes when you do that, and prompt, like, “Hey, I heard a decision or I think we made a decision. Can somebody state that?” It will actually clarify that maybe something was missed or maybe somebody had a slightly different understanding of the decision, so you’re actually helping the process by asking that question.

And then once it gets stated in a clear enough way, you can say, “Okay, so I heard this is the decision,” state the decision, and then write it down. So, you’re sort of capturing the most important things. And that, to me, is sort of the fake-it-till-you-make-it stage. And if there is jargon that is being used in that state where you don’t fully understand what they’re saying, you just make sure to repeat back, “This is what I heard you say. Is that right?” And then write that down in the way that they said it.

It’s not as important in this phase that you understand the notes as it is that the people who are in the meeting understand the notes and what’s next. And so, there you just want to capture exactly what they said, and a note to yourself to learn and understand it later. And then you can follow up with the person, ask those questions to make sure that you fully understand what you’re sending out. Don’t send out things that you don’t understand. Capture them and then make sure you understand them before you send it out because that’s how you’re going to get the benefit, ultimately.

So, that, to me, is like really the first phase. And then, over time, what you want to do is sort of graduate to a more, I’d say, mature note-taking phase where you’re then sort of going through the process, participating in the meeting, and then taking notes but organizing the information as you’re going along. And when we talk about note-taking, people ask me all the time, like, “Well, what’s the secret?” I was like, “Well, I don’t just take notes. I’m actually participating and then I’m summarizing the information in my own words.” And there’s a lot of benefits to that.

The first is really that when people speak, it doesn’t always make for good notes. If you capture everything verbatim, there’s uhms and ahhs, there’s pauses, there’s twists and turns, they might repeat themselves five times. It doesn’t make sense for you to write everything that everybody is saying. What you want to do is capture what the point of that discussion was. So, take a moment to sort of rephrase it for yourself in the most concise way, and then type that down.

And then, as you’re going through the meeting, you’re participating. And if you have read my book Glue, there’s actually two chapters next to each other. It’s the note-taking chapter, and then the next chapter is about synthesis. And I think, when you’re doing really successful note-taking or good note-taking, you’re actually practicing both skills at the same time. And so, note-taking is sort of the act of writing down the information and organizing it, but how do you actually organize the information? And there’s a few different ways to do it, through different techniques of synthesis.

And the simplest way of synthesis is to actually just try to sequence things. So, if somebody’s describing a process or a plan to do something, you’re kind of like sitting there and trying to write these things down in order. So, as people are talking through it, it’s like, “Okay, we needed to do step one.” “Okay, great. I captured that.” Then, suddenly, they’re talking about step two, and then it’s like, “Oh, well, actually, there’s something that needs to happen before that.” So, then you sort of reorganize that information and sequence it in a way.

Think of it as like I talk to my mom about recipes that she cooks for Vietnamese food, and sometimes she gives those steps in all different orders. Like, she doesn’t have anything written down because a lot of Asian cooks don’t. They don’t have recipes. They just kind of feel their way through. And when she conveys the information to me for how to cook something, I step back and go, “Okay, I heard you said this, this, and this,” and I’m like writing those down as if they were instructions that I could follow later. And that is a way to sort of synthesize the information.

So, when you’re taking good notes, you’re doing that. You’re not sort of just capturing anything as it comes along because then your steps may not be all out of order. You’re actually synthesizing them into something that’s useful and structured. And that, to me, is sometimes hard to do, but if you practice it over time, you get really good at it.

And when you’re doing it as well, it also helps you identify if there are gaps. So, in the book, I give an example about cooking chicken pho. It’s a recipe, and my mom’s giving me these instructions, and she says, like, “Hey, you’ve got these vegetables, you need to chop them up. And then you need to do X, Y, and Z.” And at the end, after I write it all down, I realize, “I didn’t do anything with these vegetables that I chopped up. What do I do with them?”

But if I didn’t sequence the information out, I wouldn’t necessarily realize that the vegetables didn’t go anywhere. And so then, it’s like, “Hey, mom, I missed the vegetables. Where do they go?” It’s like, “Okay, well, you add them at this point in time.” It’s like, “Okay, let me slot that in where it needs to happen.” And so, that active synthesis really helps you make sure that you fully understand the information.

So, when you’re capturing the information and then, ultimately, sending out, that it’s like 100% accurate, and you’ve helped identify potentially gaps in the information that you’ve plugged in as a part of that discussion.

Pete Mockaitis
So, sequence is fantastic in terms of, “How do I do this thing?” and in the course of a meeting, we say, “Oh, we should do this.” “Oh, but first I guess we got to do that.” “Oh, but that’s really going be contingent on this.” And so then, that really is super value added in terms of we had a jumble of discussion, and then what’s coming out the other side is, “Oh, here are the six steps. One, two, three, four, five, six. You made it look easy, Anh. Cool.”

So, that’s one style or approach of synthesis is sequence, chronology. Are there any other key frameworks or schemas that are handy when it comes to synthesizing?

Anh Dao Pham
Yeah, another active synthesis that I describe in the book is I call it inference. And so, this is like a really simple technique where you try to collect multiple pieces of information, and then you try to extrapolate another piece of information out of that. So, one of the mistakes that you’ll make maybe early on when you’re even participating in meetings, regardless of whether or not you’re taking notes, is you just take statements at face value.

So, it’s like, “Anh’s going to go on vacation this week. Pete has Anh scheduled for a podcast this week.” Those are two pieces of information. Now, if you’re not thinking about them, you just write those two pieces of information down, but if you’re thinking about them, you realize, “Anh’s on vacation this week, and Pete’s got a podcast. Well, Anh’s not going to make that podcast and we need to reschedule it.” There’s an extrapolation that happens.

And sometime those seems super obvious but, when you’re in a meeting, and when you’re in a lot of meetings throughout the day, oftentimes people are only participating and thinking about their one piece of it. So, I might only think about my thing, you might only think about your thing, and nobody’s connecting the two dots together.

And so, the act of inferences take those pieces of information, and then if you dare extrapolate and make another statement, a conclusion based off of that, just to make sure that you understand what the result is. So, maybe in this specific example, we say, “Oh, Anh is not going to be there for the podcast so we’ve got to reschedule it.” And I might say, “Oh, no, no, no, Pete is so special that I’m going to come out of my vacation and I’m going to take this call with him so that I can be on this podcast.” And you’re like, “Okay,” and all worked out.

So, the extrapolation was incorrect in that statement, but we clarified something that was really important that everybody missed and nobody said it out loud.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s fun.

Anh Dao Pham
And so, to me, that’s a great skill and it’s really simple. The one thing on that skill that you have to be okay with is getting things wrong. And I think in note-taking, in general, or any sort of synthesis, you have to be okay with getting things wrong and having people correct you, and it’s not until people have corrected you enough and you got it right in the way that you’ve written it down, that you know that you understand the material, so you have to get pass that, but I think the benefits are huge.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. And I think that can, over time, expose some themes and patterns in terms of, “Oh, okay, this person will make vacation exceptions for super important things,” or, “Does not ever want to be interrupted on their vacation.” And so, that’s a very narrow extrapolation or theme or pattern recognition.

And then, in a way, it’s even helpful for the individuals in terms of, “Oh, here’s how I’m communicating, and here’s what’s often missed. Okay.” And you mentioned that when you are taking your notes, what you want to record, the most critical things such as the decisions made and the action items, who will do what by when. To what extent do we want to share the key considerations of those decisions?

Because sometimes those conversations are quite meandering, and then they landed on a decision. And sometimes they’re quite clear, “Oh, this critically hinges upon four key inputs.” So, how do you think about note-taking in these environments?

Anh Dao Pham
Yeah, I’d say it’s kind of an elevation of note-taking. So, if you’re in the beginning, and you’re still just trying to keep up with the Joneses in your note-taking, then it’s fine to capture just the most salient points, meaning the key decisions and the action items. I think that’s like the minimum that you really want to capture in order for your notes to be useful to others.

But once you progress to being able to extrapolate and organize information in your note-taking, and, ideally, doing that in real time because you’re participating, then you do want to be capturing the why. And I think that is one of the biggest things that helps you actually remember the material, is understanding the why.

It’s very difficult to just understand or remember words verbatim unless they’re maybe in a song, or the alphabet, or you have some sort of moniker for them. But when you actually understand the underlying reason, you don’t actually have to necessarily understand or remember the outcome. You can kind of reason your way there, if that makes sense.

A similar example from memory was when I was in high school, I took the Calc BC test to see if I could get credit for my Calculus course. And our teacher had covered this concept called the trapezoid rule, which is a way to calculate the area of a particular shape through an integration, or through an integral, and he explained how it was actually put together.

So, when you actually do the trapezoid rule, basically what you do is you take a line of the curve, and then you split it into trapezoids, and then you add all the trapezoids together, and that’s how you actually come up with the total are below the curve. This is like me super geeking out on the math side of things. But when I got to the AP test for this calculus exam, the first thing on the test was this trapezoid rule, and I remembered coming out of it, and everybody was, like, “Oh, my gosh, does anybody here remember the trapezoid rule? Like, how could you possibly remember that?”

And it’s like, “Well, I remembered how he explained it to me. I remember that you had to actually create trapezoids, and I know how to calculate the area of a trapezoid so I just kind of was able to derive the formula as I was going through.” And I know that was such a geek example but it stuck with me so much because I remember, like, “Well, because he explained the why, and I understood how it worked, I didn’t actually have to remember the formula at the very end.”

And so, to your point, if you’re going through and you’re having these conversations, if you can capture the why, participate in the why, then you may not even need to remember the outcome because if somebody is asking, you can say, “Oh, well, I remember we talked about this and that, and this was good. And so, the conclusion must’ve been this.” And I think that that’s very powerful as well to have that information so that you can reason through those things.

Pete Mockaitis
That is really good. And I find that when I don’t have an understanding of a why, or the why is just nonsense to me, I have a hard time remembering anything associated with the conversation or anything there. So, that’s really insightful.

Anh Dao Pham
It’s like your brain almost discards the information. It’s like a superfluous piece of information, you’re like, “That didn’t make sense. It didn’t fit into the puzzle pieces of my brain, so I’m just going to kind toss it out.” And then once you truly understand that, whether or not you agree with it is a different question, but if you at least understand the reason that got you there, then, typically, you’re going to remember the answer.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And then any tips when it comes to shorthand, organization, or sending them out, or platforms?

Anh Dao Pham
I mostly advise people to use the tools that are most easy for them to use. You want to use what’s most comfortable for you. So, this is like a really simple example but at my office, we used to have computers in the room, in the conference rooms, for our meetings, and then you could also bring your laptop and plug it in.

And one of the things that I would do pretty regularly is I would bring up the conference room with a computer, and then put my notes documents up on the screen so that people could see it, but then I would actually take notes from my laptop. So, it was just projecting the information through one mechanism and taking notes from my laptop.

One time a person asked me, “Why do you do that?” I was like, “Well, I type much faster on my laptop because the keyboard is the keyboard that I practice on. The keys are a certain height. I’m just more comfortable there.” And it’s such a small tip but if you are much faster on your laptop, then go ahead and use that as advice.

And, similarly, if you’re very familiar with a particular word processing program, if you much prefer Word or Google Docs or something like that, use the mechanism that you think is going to be the fastest and easiest for you to use. Then if you send them out, you might want to translate them or post them somewhere in a shared document, depending on what your company uses, but I’d say when you’re at least capturing the information, use the device and tools that are most comfortable for you.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And when you mentioned your book, when you send them out, you want to do so as promptly as possible.

Anh Dao Pham
Yes, you do because, honestly, things move so fast that the information may be invalid or have changed over time. So, if I sit too long sometimes on a recap, sometimes people have completed the action items and they’ve already come to slightly different conclusions. So, you want the information to go out as timely as possible, and you want it to be timely and accurate and concise if possible, and to get them to the broadest population that you can that’s relevant to them.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, Anh, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we hear about more of your favorite things?

Anh Dao Pham
I’d say the only thing that I wanted to reiterate is I think that, again, note-taking is a very learnable skill, and it’s one of the things that people don’t pay attention to, they don’t think about investing in, and I think that there are so many different benefits if you just invest a little bit more in yourself, that you’ll have. This is in your arsenal for the rest of your career, and reap those benefits.

And I feel like the only thing you need to get over is, if you don’t type very fast, and don’t practice this skill often, just to let your ego get out of the way, and spend a little bit of time, and know that it’s going to benefit you over the course of your career.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, Anh, we spoke pretty recently but you mentioned that you did prepare some additional favorite things. So, lay it on us, how about another favorite quote?

Anh Dao Pham
So, recently, I was reading a book called Be Water, My Friend by Shannon Lee. It’s a book about the philosophies of Bruce Lee. And my favorite quote from the book is “The usefulness of a cup is in its emptiness.” And maybe this goes along with that sort of theme of getting out of your own way. One of the things that they talk about in the book is there’s a proverb about a person who is meeting a Zen master, and he’s talking about something, and his Zen master is trying to give him feedback but he’s not listening to anything.

And so, the Zen master takes tea and starts pouring it into a cup, and then the cup starts overflowing, and the person says, “The cup is overflowing. It can’t hold any more tea.” He’s like, “Well, how can you learn anything if your mind is already full.” And I love that quote because it reminds me, if I’m sort of struggling with something, maybe it’s because I have a preconceived notion or something, my mind is too full that it can’t receive the information to understand the truth.

And I feel like when I get stuck, I’ll often think about that, like, “Is there a way that I, again, could be looking at this differently or sort of letting go of some particular assumption or reservation that I have in order to get out of my own way?”

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Anh Dao Pham
Have you seen the TED Talk by Derek Sivers: How to start a movement?

Pete Mockaitis
You know, I think I have long ago.

Anh Dao Pham
It’s one of my favorites. I think it’s a two-minute TED Talk, really, really short. And what I love about it is it’s entertaining as well as it packs a punch of a message. And, basically, he shows a video of a person who’s sort of like dancing like a crazy person on a hill. It’s a hill with a bunch of people who were sort of sitting, maybe it’s like a picnic or a show or something.

And there’s one person who gets up, and he starts dancing. And then after he’s dancing for a period of time, then one second person gets up and starts dancing. And then just a few minutes later, all of a sudden, people swarm together and start dancing together. And he says, “Hey, we’ve started a movement.”

And the interesting thing about this is he says people think about leadership as the first person who actually started the movement, but, actually, it was the first follower who was the most impactful because the first follower joins that leader, and the quote is, “Without the first follower, the leader is just a lone nut.”

And I love that because it stresses the importance of being not necessarily the person who’s typically designated as leader, but a leader in a different capacity. And, in a way, I think note-taking is kind of similar to that. Sometimes you’re offering support in your role, and when you offer support, it offers a different kind of leadership. And the first follower is actually the person who helps create the movement. Without the second person, there never would’ve been a swarm of other people.

So, if you haven’t seen the TED Talk, I highly recommend it. It’s not exactly a study but the message packs a powerful punch.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And a favorite book?

Anh Dao Pham
I was thinking about different books. I read books in all different genres. And kind of in the note-taking theme, I actually have two favorite books on the topics of writing, and these were books that I read when I was writing Glue. The first is On Writing Well by William Zinsser, and it’s a book about writing nonfiction. He actually talks, too, about if you’re writing in business but you’re not a person who’s aspiring to be an author, how important it is to be able to express your words concisely. And I found that it was just such an impactful book, not long at all, but just packed a great message.

The second book on writing is Stephen King, an author that I’m sure everybody is familiar with, called On Writing. It’s more about writing fiction, but I think both of them just teach you that there are so much more to learn in the craft of writing. And while note-taking isn’t the same as writing a book, I think it just reminds you that there are ways that you can always improve on what you’re doing, and something that you’re doing every day on a daily basis in your jobs.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite tool?

Anh Dao Pham
It’s funny because I’ve been saying, “I really like typing so I like to do everything electronically,” but my favorite tool is actually Post-Its, Post-it notes. I love Post-it notes. When I have lots of tasks that I needed to do, I’ve got lots of Post-it notes all over my desk. In fact, you can see when I’m really busy because I’ll  have lots of Post-it notes everywhere.

But I use them for facilitating meetings. If you’re doing sort of any in-person discussion, or any sort of brainstorming, or clustering exercises. I love all of that. If you’re doing timelines, it’s easy to plot things out in a timeline. Or, in a case where you maybe don’t want to take notes or you have the luxury of having people in person, and you want to sequence information. This is great. You can write a Post-it, you can move them around. It’s wonderful. I love them so much that people will joke sometimes that I must’ve invested in 3M.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And a favorite habit?

Anh Dao Pham
I read a lot. And I feel like people forget that they can read to get information. Probably not your listeners. I think maybe they do like to read, and you have a lot of guests who are authors, but one of the things I find so beautiful about today is that you can learn about almost anything you want to learn about because there are so many resources out there through videos, through blogs, etc. But I love reading books. I feel people gravitate now to online content for a lot of things, or short-term content, but I feel there’s nothing better than a really well-put together book.

Pete Mockaitis
And is there a key nugget you’re known for?

Anh Dao Pham
Outside of being a lover of note-taking and a lover of Post-its, in the book and the other things that we had talked about in the last podcast I did, people do talk to me a lot about this idea of not having to have a project plan when you’re a project manager. The other thing that I often get asked about is this methodology I introduced in the book about project management called CALM. And it means closely aligned, loosely managed.

And it’s a way of managing projects without managing them as hands-on, as typical project managers might. Through alignment and setting clear goals, and then giving people ownership over their respective tasks rather than trying to dictate and control everything. So, I get asked about that a lot.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Anh Dao Pham
I’d love it if folks could contact me through my website. It’s www.GlueLeaders.com. In there, you can find, again, all the links to any information about my book, this podcast when it’s available, as well as the last podcast that you had me on, Pete. So, thank you so much for the opportunity. And, yeah, if you’d like to reach out or have any other questions about note-taking or anything else in the book, I’d love to hear from you.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Anh Dao Pham
I’d say, at least with respect to note-taking, just try it. Just try it and, again, practice. It takes a lot of practice, and practice doesn’t actually make perfect. I feel like, as a person in my career, I’m almost looking for a way to progress, and I never have finished progressing. And so, I’d say practice and continue to strive to make yourself better because I think everybody has the capacity to do more and better as long as they put their minds to it.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Anh, this has been a treat. I wish you much luck and many good notes.

Anh Dao Pham
Thank you. I hope your listeners really enjoy this note-taking, and I’d love to hear from them. Thank you again for the opportunity, Pete.

850: How to Reinvent Yourself in Life and Work with Joanne Lipman

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Joanne Lipman says: "Everybody else’s journey looks so nice and neat, and we feel like we’re the only ones who are a mess, but, frankly, we all go through that struggle."

Joanne Lipman reveals her strategies for reinventing how you live, work, and lead.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How struggle makes you better.
  2. Three tricks to make any transition easier.
  3. How to take the most efficient brain breaks.

About Joanne

Joanne Lipman is a pioneering journalist and the author of the No. 1 bestseller THAT’S WHAT SHE SAID: What Men and Women Need to Know About Working Together and NEXT! The Power of Reinvention in Life and Work. She has served as Editor-in-Chief of USA Today, USA Today Network, Conde Nast Portfolio, and The Wall Street Journal’s Weekend Journal, leading those organizations to six Pulitzer Prizes. She is also an on-air CNBC contributor and Yale University journalism lecturer.

Resources Mentioned

Joanne Lipman Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Joanne, welcome to How to be Awesome at Your Job.

Joanne Lipman
Thank you. It’s great to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to dig into the wisdom of your book Next!: The Power of Reinvention in Life and Work but, first, I just got to know, you have had such an impressive career in the heights of senior journalism.

Pete Mockaitis
So, given your perspectives from having worked in journalism for a long time, what can you tell us about humanity, those of us here who make and choose to consume the news? What have you discovered that most of us don’t know?

Joanne Lipman
One of the things that I’ve discovered is that I really, really, really respond and appreciate the audience, the people who are listening. I think that our best insights come from when we’re talking to lots of people, when we’re out and about, when we also listen to people throughout the country. I think that one of the issues that we’ve had with trust in media is the idea that there are…we have media centers on both coasts.

We don’t have as much national media in the middle of the country, and I think it’s really important to have people represented in the newsroom from every community, from different localities, different genders experiences, socioeconomic backgrounds. And that, to me, is what builds trust in the news. And, to me, that’s the most exciting part of being in the newsroom when you’re surrounded by people who come from all different perspectives, and everybody brings something else to the party, which is, I think, helpful for all of us.

Pete Mockaitis
And then what happens when that’s not done, in terms of what’s the vibe or the impact?

Joanne Lipman
Yeah, I think there’s been some legitimate criticism that we’ve had too much sort of parachuting in. So, you’ve got your…because media is, and this is a whole other conversation, but media is under pressure, financial pressure, and there’s been a lot of cuts to journalism jobs. And, as a result, what sometimes ends up happening is there’s a story somewhere where there’s not a big news organization, and one of the big national news organizations, we call it they parachute in. Like, it’s every presidential election, there’s 50 big-time journalists who descend on Iowa and go to a diner.

Diner journalism is not great journalism. What you really want are the people who live there to be the reporters, to tell you to really understand what’s happening on the ground. And I think this is a reason why the media has – and this is all legitimate criticism – missed a lot of the rise of populism, the rise of Trump, certainly, but also just sort of through the last 20 years, the rise of the Tea Party. There’s a lot of really smart, informed people throughout the country whose voices are not heard.

And I think anything we can do to elevate those voices and have a broader perspective about…and an on-the-ground perspective of what’s happening. This is actually one of the great things when I was working with Gannett, which owns over a hundred local newspapers, and it was fantastic to be able to have when there’s an earthquake, a fire, a natural disaster, a shooting, to have local reporters who are on the ground who understood the community, and it really helps to understand the whole country. We’re a very diverse place with lots of perspectives and we need to understand ourselves better.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, now can you tell us your book Next! what’s the big idea here?

Joanne Lipman
Sure. So, Next! it’s the power of reinvention in life and work, and I’m so excited about this book because it grew out of what we are all going through right now at this moment, which is we’ve had three years, we’re at the three-year mark, which is crazy, from the start of the pandemic, and the entire world was sort of upended.

No matter what you do or who you are, your life was upended, and it really got so many people rethinking, “What are our priorities? Am I in the right job? Is this the career I want? Is this the life I want? Is this where I want to live?” So many questions, and it occurred to me very early in the pandemic that we’re all going to have to figure out what’s next.

And so, the big idea is I wanted to help people to navigate big changes, navigate change in how we live, how we work, how we lead, and really to help people to move toward finding their real purpose.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, so when it comes to doing that, you’ve got a reinvention roadmap. Can you walk us through how that works?

Joanne Lipman
Sure. So, I’ll tell you a little bit about what the reporting was. When I started reporting the book, it was so interesting. I was looking for stories of people, and I did hundreds of interviews, there’s tons of research, scientific research in the book Next! And what I started with was talking with people who had already gone through these major transformations in different ways.

Some had had huge career changes, like one of my favorites. A guy named Chris Donovan who spent years, decades, as a telephone repairman but he secretly would, like, doodle pictures of shoes. And at the age of 50, left the phone company, went back to school, and now is a couture women shoe designer who was named Best of Boston, Boston Magazine, best shoe designer. It’s a beautiful story.

I found all these wonderful stories where people had these amazing transformations, but then what I did was I went back and talked to the academics, the researchers, who study these different kinds of change. And what was so fascinating was I talked to people who had gone through very different kinds of transformations, some were career, some were people who came back from, like, huge failures, some were people who had had trauma in their life, and some were actually people who had these grand aha moments that just changed their life.

So, these all seemed, on the face of it, to be very different kinds of transformation. And then I went and talked to these academics. There’s different academics who study each kind of change that I’ve just gone through, and they all walked me through sort of the steps of transformation, and they all used different words, different language, but they were all describing the same set of steps. And it was such a revelation to understand how this works.

So, they’re basically there’s four steps that pretty much everyone will go through. So, the first step, like, I will tell you the four steps, what we call them are search, struggle, stop, solution, and I will walk you through them. So, the search, almost everyone who I spoke to, no matter what kind of transformation they went through, they actually started before they even knew they started. They started moving in this direction, they started collecting information.

So, if you think about someone who changes careers, that is somebody who maybe has a hobby, or a side hustle, or even just some random interest that just grows and grows. I talked to everybody from James Patterson, the mega-selling novelist, who spent 30 years at an ad agency. He was actually at an ad agency, and he wrote books on the side, some of which got published, many of them kind of did not do well. He was, like, finding his voice, but he was working toward it.

The shoe designer I mentioned was doodling shoes. One of my other favorites was a bank economist. He worked for years, for decades, at JP Morgan, and he had a weekend house. And on the weekend house, it was a farmhouse, and he leased out the land around it to a cattle farmer. And when the cattle farmer died, he just bought the cows, he said, “I just thought all they do is eat grass. It doesn’t really take any work.”

Well, fast forward 20 years later, the guy is a full-time cattle farmer. He used to be a Harvard-educated economist, and now he’s, like, a guy who gets up and shoos the cows from one pasture to another and could not be happier. So, anyway, that’s the search, that people start moving in that direction. The struggle is very often particularly with careers, this is true. You leave one identity behind but you haven’t quite gotten to the other.

There’s a wonderful professor, Herminia Ibarra, who studies career transitions. She calls this the liminal period. It’s where it’s an uncomfortable period where you’re still haven’t quite figured out the future but you’re escaping the past.

The third step, which not everyone goes through but very often they do, which we call the stop. Very, very often, I found that there is a moment, and it’s either you choose it or it chooses you, where you just stop. So, where it’s either you’re banging your head against the wall and you can’t figure out that next step, again, uncomfortable, or, in some cases, for example, the shoe designer who I was mentioning, what prompted him was he got struck by cancer.

He had prostate cancer, and it was one of those moments where he said, “Wait a second. I’ve got to stop and think. Is this the life I want to have? Or, is this the life that I need to follow the path that I think I was put on this earth to do?” and he had that stop. And so many people do. And, by the way, if you talked to creativity researchers, people who study that, this is why we all have those aha moments.

I bet you’ve had this, right, where you wake up in the middle of the night, or you’re in the shower, or you’re going for a run, and suddenly you have that aha moment. It’s because you’re puzzling through something, and you can’t quite figure it out, and then what ends up happening is you have to put it out of your mind, you have to shut off the conscious thinking about it, and that’s what allows all these sorts of random thoughts in the back of your head kind of coalesce in your subconscious and then emerge as this aha moment.

So, there’s your stop. And then that is, again, what takes you finally to the solution. So, these four steps are very common to every kind of transition, and I found that very, very encouraging to understand how that process works.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Yes, very much. And that struggle, it’s interesting that notion of identity. So, our identities are often quite wrapped up in our work careers. Is that a finding you saw again and again?

Joanne Lipman
A thousand percent, yes. Very often, somebody said to me, “You are, like, your title, and when somebody takes that away from you, you lose that title, people are really lost.” There really is an issue with, there’s an Atlantic writer who calls workism, which is it’s almost like a religion where we are so focused on work, and it is so much of our identity, and when that goes away, it’s very hard to come back.

But that struggle is also sort of the pathway. It’s really uncomfortable. What I found almost universally is when you’re going through that struggle, whoever it is that’s going through that struggle, you think you’re the only person in the world who’s dealing with that. You feel like, “I’m a loser, and everybody around me is getting ahead, and they’ve figured it out and I haven’t.” But it is actually a universal feeling.

And it’s also where the really, really important work gets done. It’s not necessarily fun but it’s helpful to know that, first of all, everyone goes through it, and, secondly, it is actually where the most important part gets done. And I think one of the issues that we have in this, with society at large, is we have this sort of fantasy of instant overnight success, overnight transformation, and it starts from childhood with Cinderella, and then it goes to adolescence with Superman and Spiderman, and then it goes to adulthood with American Idol.

And then we hear these amazing stories, like John Legend was a management consultant, and now he’s a superstar. And Mark Zuckerberg was a college kid, and now he’s a tech billionaire. We hear these stories and it just seems so far from our own experience. It just seems like it’s impossible we shouldn’t even try because we’ll never get there.

And it’s really a damaging myth. It’s a complete myth that the important thing is we all need to go through that middle period. It’s really important, great work is being done in that middle period. We all go through it. And so, again, it’s something that we shouldn’t beat ourselves up about.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, you mentioned John Legend, a management consultant to music, and I remember when I was making my transition, I was in management consulting at Bain. And I remember when I was sort of an odd duck, like people typically didn’t believe that company to go be speaker-author-people. So, I did feel that discomfort, it’s just like, “Oh, so what do you do?” I was like, “Oh, I’m a speaker and an author, and I’m kind of still figuring it out. My market is in topics and audiences, but I was a consultant at Bain.”

So, it’s like, “But I’m not a loser, I promise.” I don’t know, it’s like that insecurity that I had in that moment, it’s like, “I’m still figuring out what the heck that I’m doing here, but before I had a pretty prestigious role, so don’t think less of me.”

Joanne Lipman
Everybody. Everybody has been in your position because so many people, they meet you and they’re like, “Okay, what do you do?” and it leaves you tongue-tied. I’ve experienced that myself. I ran a magazine that closed, and then I was meeting people, and they’re like, “What do you do?” I’m like, “I used to…” What do you say, right? It’s a very awkward situation.

I have a whole chapter, by the way, on what I call necessity entrepreneurs, which is women, people of color, and, increasingly, Baby Boomers, people who are actually being squeezed out of the traditional workforce or the traditional jobs, and very often end up with far more fulfilling careers, actually, as a result. But the women who I talked to, in particular, said, “You feel invisible.”

There’s a fabulous woman I talked to who had a big consulting career, and left to raise her children, and for 12 years, she was out of the workforce, and she said, “These 12 years of feeling invisible, it’s tough. It’s tough.” I do love, by the way, that LinkedIn now allows you to have that career gap as, like, a legitimate part of your resume because I think those are…these career gaps, we’re increasingly in a nonlinear world with careers, which is so much about what Next! is about, is this sort of nonlinear life and how do you navigate the nonlinear life.

And we see it with Boomers, and now we’re seeing it with the younger generation, which they expect to have, 10 or 12 careers in the course of their working life.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, now you got me intrigued. So, LinkedIn, so gaps, you have the option, you have a start date and end date for things that don’t have to overlap within the programming. Is that what you’re saying?

Joanne Lipman
Yeah, exactly. And it’s made for people who have career gaps or people who maybe dropped out of the workforce, paid workforce, I should say, because they’re still working, but paid workforce, you know, they raised their kids or for other reasons, they take care of older relatives, for whatever reason it is. And I think that’s incredibly important.

I also think that there’s an increasing recognition that during those gaps in paid employment, there’s a lot of learning that’s going on, and there are a lot of people who I’ve talked to who had these wonderful career transitions because of what they learned during these gaps in their careers. The woman who I just referenced, who said she felt invisible for 12 years, she poured her energy and her business skills into community issues.

So, the zoning board, and getting a playground by the school, and getting a stop sign, and joining the PTA. All these kinds of things, civic engagement, and she met a lot of women like herself. Ultimately, what this woman did was she did two things, which is so awesome. She started a nonprofit that she is now the CEO of, that is expanding nationally, called The Acceleration Project. Its volunteers like herself and other moms who had big careers, and they mentor local business owners to help them with things like marketing and finance.

She did that, and then she was elected mayor of Scarsdale, New York, her town, and she now gives speeches all over. And she told me when she gives these speeches, she says, “When I talk about my career path, it sounds like it was so intentional, and that you can tie it up with a bow. But, frankly, when you’re in the middle of it, when you’re in that struggle,” she said, “you have no idea where it’s going.”

And this is sort of that myth that we were talking about. Everybody else’s journey looks so nice and neat, and we feel like we’re the only ones who are a mess, but, frankly, we all go through that struggle.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, we touched on a number of stories as examples here and there. Could you walk us through a story from beginning to end that you find the most clearly illustrative of these stages, “Hey, here’s the search, here’s the struggle, here’s the stop, here’s the solution”?

Joanne Lipman
Yes, okay. So, there’s a fabulous woman who I met, named Marla Ginsburg. So, Marla Ginsburg was a big-time television executive, and she had a great job, and she told me this story about how she got a promotion, she moves to California, gets the big house with the pool, and the nannies for the kids, the whole works, then comes a writers’ strike, and she loses the job.

And so, now she has to think about, “What am I going to do next?” And she says the only thing she can think of is she was always really interested in clothing design, and she’d always hoped to be, in her dream, her dream life was to be a television host. And she said the only problem was she didn’t know how to sew, she didn’t know how to design, and she’d never done television.

So, she, though, was in this struggle phase of, like, “What do I do next?” As she said, she was over 50 in a town that really prizes youth. Her old life, she could see, was fading away but she was in the midst of this struggle, saying, “How do I get to this new life?” And so, she went out, she bought a sewing machine at Sears, she Googled how to use it, and she Googled how to sew.

She Googled everything about design, she starts trying to put together these designs, and then she’s learning, she’s struggling, she’s hoping to get to this next step, and then she gets slammed again, that her son gets ill, he needs treatment. She no longer has insurance, and it’s one of those stop moments. He goes overseas, where her ex-husband is, to get treatment, and she follows.

She’s in a bar department, and this was her stop. She’s struggling, and now this is a dead stop. She is only there to be there for her son. And she said she was all alone, like while he was getting his treatments and such, she’s all by herself and she’s in a new place where she doesn’t know anybody. And she says, “You know, for some reason, during this moment, it was a dead stop, and yet,” she said, “my creativity just flourished.”

And she had all of these ideas about creating new designs and new ways that she could…she thought about the women who could use the designs for, particularly women in her age group, over 50 kinds of women, and she said it was the most creative period of her life. It was an amazing thing. Thankfully, her son recovered. She came back to the United States, she found a manufacturer, and fast forward to today, Marla Ginsburg is one of the biggest stars on Home Shopping Network.

She has a line called MarlaWynne. And PS, she is the face of MarlaWynne, so she, actually, made both of her dreams come true. She’s a clothing designer and she’s, essentially, a talk show host because you can find her on TV talking. And she’s awesome on TV talking about her designs. And it was an amazing thing to see for someone who went through such a struggle and had that stop that was just forced on her that was just horrendous, and yet that was…everything that happened to her was what allowed her to be what she considers the best expression of herself as a clothing designer and being on television.

So, so many stories work out in that manner. It’s been pretty amazing to speak to so many of these people from different walks of life.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that is a lovely story, and it’s cool to see the pattern and the life cycle there. Could you share with us some mistakes, things not to do when we are thinking about making a switch and reinventing?

Joanne Lipman
Yes. So, one thing is if you read all of the traditional business books, they will tell you, you have to have the goal in mind and work backwards. So, if you read like Think and Grow Rich or any of these books that have been around for many decades, that’s how they lay it out but, in fact, that is a myth also. Almost all of the people that I spoke to, some had a goal in mind, but many of the people that I spoke to kind of had the sort of circuitous paths. They would never imagine that this is where they would end up.

And so, one thing is to really keep an open mind. One of the best examples of that, sports fans will remember Len Elmore, who was on the Knicks and on the Pacers and various other teams, big basketball star in the ‘80s. And Len, after he retired, he actually went on to Harvard Law School, he’s had an illustrious career both as a commentator and also practicing law and management in sports.

And his stop was he turned 65 years old and he just had this just series of terrible things. He was hospitalized, and he had a terrible illness, which he had a heart attack. He was let go from his sports commentating job. So, he’s 65 and, suddenly, he’s done all of these, had this great career, and, suddenly, he’s like, “Wait a second. Who am I? What is my identity? What can I do?”

And he said, “I felt like I had so much more to offer.” And he said, “You know what I did, instead of saying ‘Here’s where I want to go’” he said, “I sat down and I actually wrote down what are all of the skills that I bring to the party. And then I looked to see what are opportunities I never would’ve thought of that my skills matched.”

And guess what? He ended up being, now, and he is currently a Columbia University professor, which is not the career he ever thought he would end up in when he was playing for the Knicks, but all of his skills, the fact that he had this law degree and had practice, and the fact he was interested in social justice with athletes, and his knowledge of sports management, all of it rolled into becoming a professor and a scholar, which is, again, not where he thought his career was taking him.

And we saw that a lot, but there are also things that you can do, which perhaps we want to talk about. Things that you can do to help figure out where it is that you want to go.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, sure thing. Let’s hear it.

Joanne Lipman
Yeah. Well, there’s a number but I’ll just mention three. So, the first is there is a concept that is called possible selves. This is a concept in psychology, a couple psychologists actually coined this phrase, and it means you’re imagining who you might be, who you might become. And that is something that a lot of people sort of felt was very helpful.

James Patterson told me that while he was an ad executive, he imagined himself as a bestselling novelist. It was the kind of thing, it seemed like a far-off dream. Marla Ginsburg did the same with thinking about being a clothing designer. But just imagining it isn’t sufficient. You actually want to do something. So, you want to either take some action as in a hobby or something.

But the second thing that I would say, because this ties in with this first idea of possible selves, is talk to what we would call, I’m calling an expert companion. Expert companion is somebody who knows you really, really well, who can reflect back to you what are your strengths that you may not even be aware of. Again, I saw this very frequently with people who, they’re so close to their own strengths that they don’t even see that they have them.

And then the third thing I would say is reach out to your network, particularly weak ties and dormant ties. And I think you’ve talked about this on the show before. Your most helpful career advice very often will come from, not from your direct circle – you kind of all know the same things and the same people – but from somebody who either you lost touch with, or somebody who you know tangentially. There’s been a lot of research that’s been done on this over the past 50 years. And for people who switched careers, the majority will tell you, it came through weak ties or dormant ties, people who you lost touch with.

There was a really cool experiment that was done fairly recently where executives were asked to reach out to try and solve a business problem that they had by reaching out to someone who they hadn’t spoken to in at least five years. And the results were quite remarkable. They were like, first of all, they got better advice than they got from their inner circle but, also, they just found that it was really gratifying to reconnect with these people.

And they also said, “It was also quite efficient because they could kind of pick up where they left off,” so you didn’t have that sort of awkward get-to-know-you kind of thing. They could kind of dive right into it. So, it was really a win-win for everybody.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s very cool. Well, Joanne, tell me. Anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Joanne Lipman
Yeah, you know what, there’s two things I want to mention, actually, that I came across that I think can be really helpful to people. I know you’ve done some shows about burnout. There’s a lot of burnout in this particular moment, and I think it is with the pandemic, it really did get people to rethink and reprioritize. And one of the things that I found, and I found this to be true in the research as well as with the people I talked to, is listen to your gut.

If your gut is telling you you’re not in the right place, listen. It turns out there’s a lot of research behind gut instinct, and very often your gut instinct is correct. And I would also say give yourself a break. This is also so important. When I talk about that stop phase, sometimes it was somebody who either shows to take a career break or had one forced on them when they were, let’s say, laid off.

And every piece of research will tell you that when you take that break, it is a way for your brain to reset, but also when you’re not so actively thinking and focusing and losing sleep over trying to solve a problem, that is when your brain is at its best. When the thoughts that are swirling around in your head can coalesce into some fabulous new idea.

And, by the way, and I think a lot of listeners probably know this, but you cannot say it enough that it’s so important, even during the course of your day, take a walk, take a break. One of the great pieces of advice I got was what we call the 90-minute rule. And the 90-minute rule is if you’re working on a project, you focus intensely on it with no distractions for 90 minutes. So, you turn off the cellphone and you don’t look at your email, you just focus on whatever you’re doing, this task at hand, for 90 minutes. But then, after 90 minutes, you must take a break.

And it doesn’t matter what you do during your break. You can go for a run, you can eat something, you can do whatever you feel like doing but you have to take that break, and then you can do another 90-minute segment. And you can do about three of these in one day and get far more work done than if you just, like, sit at your desk and stare at your computer for eight hours.

There’s the famous research that was done that Malcolm Gladwell popularized about you need 10,000 hours, but the professor who actually did that research on the 10,000 hours, that was only one piece of what makes you an expert. The other piece of it was exactly what I just talked about, which is that his research was on violinists that needed 10,000 hours to be an expert. But what these violinists did is they practiced for 90 minutes, they took a break, they practiced for another 90 minutes, and they did it no more than three times a day. So, it’s so important to take that break to allow your brain to reset.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, now, Joanne, could you share a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Joanne Lipman
Absolutely. I don’t know who said this but I repeat it almost every day, which is, “If something is bothering you, and it won’t matter five years from today, it doesn’t matter now.”

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. And we heard about a favorite study, so how about a favorite book?

Joanne Lipman
So, favorite book, my favorite book of all time is Anna Karenina. However, I would say there’s a book that I absolutely love that I highly recommend called The Eureka Factor, and it’s by two academics, John Kounios and Mark Beeman, who are the reigning experts on aha moments, why they happen, and how you can have more of them.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job?

Joanne Lipman
Yeah, one that I came across while researching the book is a CV of Failure. And I found that people who are highly successful, some of them, there’s an academic who I met along the way, who, she said the best thing she ever did was she sat down and created a resume, not of all her great successes, but of everything she failed at, every research project she didn’t get, or grant she didn’t get, and every rejection she got.

And she said it was really helpful in helping her understand, first of all, all the amazing things she tried, but also it helped her understand where her strengths were, and it actually led her to a different field of research. So, I love the idea of a CV of Failure.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite habit?

Joanne Lipman
My favorite habit is definitely the 90-minute rule that I referred to earlier. I use it every day.

Pete Mockaitis
And is there a key nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks; you hear people quote it back to you often?

Joanne Lipman
Yes. Yes. I was once asked, “What advice would you give to your younger self?” and I said, “Exhale.” I hear that all the time. All the time. The idea that we get so caught up in our careers, and we worry so much about the future, and just if you exhale.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Joanne Lipman
My website is JoanneLipman.com, and you can find Next!: The Power of Reinvention in Life and Work on Amazon or anywhere where you buy books.

Pete Mockaitis
And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Joanne Lipman
Two things related. First is if you have a hobby or an interest or something that you think possibly you might be interested in, take action, learn about it, talk about it, follow somebody in the field. And second, and so related to this, is be open to the unexpected. You never know where your interests may take you. And for the people who I interviewed for Next! so many of them ended up in places they never dreamed, and they’re so much more fulfilled in their careers because of it.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Joanne, this has been a treat. I wish you much luck and many quality reinventions.

Joanne Lipman
Thank you, and you as well. This has been a terrific conversation.

848: How to Quickly Grow and Future-Proof Your Career with Jason Feifer

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Jason Feifer says: "If you only focus on what you already know, you will only be qualified to do the thing you’re already doing."

Jason Feifer shares the simple things you can do today to set yourself up for a more successful tomorrow.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The mindset that helps you uncover hidden opportunities.
  2. Why real growth happens outside your role.
  3. The biggest career mistake professionals make.

About Jason

Jason Feifer is the editor in chief of Entrepreneur magazine, a startup advisor, host of the podcasts Build For Tomorrow and Problem Solvers, and has taught his techniques for adapting to change at companies including Pfizer, Microsoft, Chipotle, DraftKings, and Wix. He has worked as an editor at Fast Company, Men’s Health, and Boston magazine, and has written about business and technology for the Washington Post, Slate, Popular Mechanics, and others.

Resources Mentioned

Jason Feifer Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Jason, welcome to How to be Awesome at Your Job.

Jason Feifer
Thank you for having me.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to dig into the wisdom of your book Build for Tomorrow: An Action Plan for Embracing Change, Adapting Fast, and Future-Proofing Your Career. But, first, I think we need to hear a little bit about you’ve been living without a sense of smell even way before COVID made that a more common thing for people. What’s the story here?

Jason Feifer
Yes, I felt like people were stealing my cool, fun fact when everybody started losing their sense of smell. The story is that when I was in college, I was dating a girl who had a very, very good sense of smell and taste. And for the first time in my life, she started asking me questions, like, “What herb is in here? Did you taste the rosemary in that?” or whatever, these questions nobody asked you when you’re in high school.

And I didn’t know what she was talking… I just didn’t know what she was talking about. I had no idea what she was talking about. And we realized maybe something weird is happening. So, we did a taste test, which was that I closed my eyes and she fed me different flavors of ice cream, like chocolate and vanilla and whatever, and they were all exactly the same. I had no sense.

And this was not a new thing, this was just the first time that I’ve realized that I had no perception of this at all. I’d gone through my life, up until that point, not aware that I was not perceiving things the way that everybody else in the world was. And I’ve since gone to a taste and smell clinic and done a lot of research into this and found that just an endless variety of things can impact your sense of smell, everything from nasal polyps to a brain tumor.

In my case, it was probably head trauma as a child. I fell out of a stroller when I was very little. This was what my parents told me as soon as I told them about this.

Pete Mockaitis
But they didn’t tell you before, Jason. They’re holding on that under the vest until…

Jason Feifer
Well, you know, it wasn’t that relevant a piece of information many years later. It was just I fell out of a stroller. I was in traction, apparently, but life moved on so I wasn’t aware of it. But once I told my parents the leading causes of this are…if something has come and gone, you can’t find some other active medical issue.

The leading causes of this are head trauma, chemical exposure, or an upper respiratory infection that just happens to get up into your olfactory nerve. My parents said, “Oh, my God, the head trauma.” And so, now we probably know. And, in the meantime, everything tastes exactly the same to me, which is it tastes like nothing.

Pete Mockaitis
Wow. So, I’m curious then, before you realized that this was going on, did you have any differentiation between, “I’m eating steak,” versus ice cream. I mean, there’s texture, but, like, the taste was just about the same to you?

Jason Feifer
Yeah, but I didn’t know that it was supposed to taste any different. You’re wearing glasses right now, and I wear contacts, which means that there was a time in your life where you put on glasses for the first time. Do you remember that time?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Jason Feifer
Do you remember your experience of that?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, it was fun, it was like, “Oh, wow, it’s like all the font became semi-bold. That’s kind of nice.”

Jason Feifer
Right. I remember the first time I realized two things. One, you can look at carpet and see individual fibers and, two, you can look at trees and see individual leaves. That was more information than I was ever getting before and I didn’t know that the average person got that information. And the same is true with this. I just didn’t know that this information was available to other people.

I thought, when people talked about flavors, they were talking about such insanely subtle differences between things that I probably just didn’t care about them. I didn’t realize that they are fundamentally different. And I still don’t really understand what it means. Like, wine is a funny thing to me. Every wine is exactly the same to me. So, I don’t know what people are talking about when they take a sip of wine, and they list off all these notes. It’s a complete foreign experience.

Pete Mockaitis
And I guess wine might also be the same to you as tea or water.

Jason Feifer
More or less. So, wine has alcohol, and you can feel the alcohol. So, there’s something that’s a little different there. And there’s a little quick science lesson, which is that, so let’s say wine, let’s say you take a sip of wine. This happens, functionally, simultaneously, but the first thing that happens is that the wine will hit your tongue. And that is the sensation of actual taste, which is just sweet, salty, sour, bitter. It’s just categorical.

Then odor molecules from the wine go to the back of your throat and up, and they’re read by your olfactory nerves, which is what controls your sense of smell. And that is actually what creates the sensation of flavor. Flavor is you smelling something inside of your mouth, basically. So, I can get sweet, salty, sour, bitter because my tongue works just fine. The problem is olfactory nerves so I can’t get flavor. So, it’s the difference between chocolate is sweet but it is not chocolate, and, therefore, vanilla and chocolate and strawberry ice cream are all exactly the same, they’re just sweet.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, Jason, it seems like you have adapted and functioned well despite this challenge. Kudos.

Jason Feifer
Thank you.

Pete Mockaitis
And, boy, what a metaphor, the idea of putting on glasses for the first time or realizing that your perception is different when it comes to other folks are picking up on flavors. Can you give us, we’ll put you on the spot, a segue for some lessons that are also similar, relevant, comparable, to those found in your book Build for Tomorrow?

Jason Feifer
It was a great setup for a segue, and I’m happy to take the challenge. So, I would say the transition here is that there is a way of learning how to think such that you see doors where other people see walls, in the same way that I saw blobs of green until I see leaves. And this isn’t, fortunately, something that you need to go out to a doctor to see, and it’s also something that everyone has access to, unlike me who cannot fix my sense of smell, because what it really requires is an understanding that we spend too much energy debating whether or not something should happen when it has already happened.

We spend a lot of time and energy trying to hold onto what we were comfortable with, and then trying to push back against inevitable change. And that’s counterproductive because if the change is happening then we have to deal with it. And the thing that I have learned from spending so much time, years and years, with entrepreneurs and innovative leaders is that there is a way to think about this experience.

There is a way to recognize your transferrable value. There’s a way to understand that the things that are in front of us are opportunities that when something changes, it just doesn’t change for us, it changes for everybody, which means that we are actually now in a situation where other people need new things, and we can rise up and serve them, and be the person who solves their problems.

That if we’re working in a job, that we can spend a lot of our energy figuring out how to be good at that next job even if we don’t know what that next job is. That the more that we build into the way that we just run our lives, the reality that a lot of the things that we do are going to change, the more we can start to prepare for it, and, ultimately, open up opportunities in the future.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. That’s cool. And I love that notion of seeing doors where everyone else sees walls. And, boy, we talked about high school, this just brings me back to a high school memory in which I was in an organization that’s called the National Honor Society, and I think I was a junior, and we did very little in this organization, which I saw it was kind of silly. It’s like we’re honored, it’s like okay. But there’s supposed to be, like, service and such.

And I remember the advisor asked, “Who would like to organize the clothing drive?” and then nobody was volunteering. And I heard, “Who would like to be the National Honor Society president next year?” because it’s like, “If we do almost nothing, and then you do the one major thing that we do, then, in an election sense, you would win that.”

And at the time, I was very, I guess, ambitious, and resume-conscious, and thinking about college applications, and looking amazing, all that stuff, so, for me, that represented an opportunity, and I was sort of surprised that nobody was interested in it, and I felt like I needed to. And maybe I was a sophomore. I felt like I should hang back and let the upperclassmen take it but then nobody did after about seven seconds, I was like, “Well, I’m taking it now.” I raised my hand and, sure enough, I became the president.

Jason Feifer
Congratulations.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you. Yeah, I don’t know how much of a difference it made in my grand scheme of trying to look super impressive on applications or whatever, but I think that goes to show that I’ve had other times where I was at a podcast conference and someone showed me their app, and I was like, “Oh, my gosh, your app shows how many people are subscribed to a given podcast within that app?” And he’s like, “Yeah.” “Well, that means I could use these data to extrapolate against known podcasts audience sizes to estimate the size of any podcast, which is massively valuable when you’re assessing opportunities.”

And so, I think that really resonates in terms of when you see a door where other see walls, I have had those moments, like, I see something other people don’t see, and because of that, cool things are opening up. So, lay it on us, Jason, how do we get there?

Jason Feifer
How do we get there? A lot of different ways to get there. Those are good little stories. Let’s start with this. This isn’t something that you just do all of a sudden. This is something that you build towards. These are habits and ways of thinking that help you operate, make decisions, do something now that’s going to pay off tomorrow. I’ll give you a couple ways to think about it.

Number one, we’ll start with this. We should all be doing something in our own work that I like to call work your next job. And work the next job is this. Look, in front of you, Pete, in front of me, in front of everyone who’s listening to this right now, there are two sets of opportunities. You can call them opportunity set A and opportunity set B.

Opportunity set A is everything that is asked of you. So, you have a boss, and that boss needs you to do things, and you show up and you’re evaluated on whether or not you have done those things well. that is opportunity set A, do a good job. Opportunity set B is everything that’s available to you that nobody is asking you to do. And that could be at work, you could join a new team. You could take on a new responsibility.

It could also be things outside of work, like listening to podcasts then you decide to start your own. Whatever the case is, here is my argument to you. Opportunity set B is always more important. Infinitely more important than anything else. And the reason for that isn’t opportunity set A, doing the things that are asked of you, is unimportant. It is important. You have to do it or you will get fired. You need to earn money, but opportunity set B is where growth happens.

If you only focus on what you already know, you will only be qualified to do the thing you’re already doing, but opportunity set B is where growth happens. That is where you start to lay the foundation for payoff that you cannot even imagine, and you don’t need to know what the ROI is on it. You should just be doing things because you find them interesting, informative, because they create new skillsets, new opportunities, because you’re thinking about, “What do I need to learn? And have I learned it yet?”

I’ll give you an example for myself. When I was at Fast Company years ago, I was a senior editor at Fast Company years and years ago, and a senior editor is something of a misnomer. It just means you’re kind of a mid-level editor, and my job was to be on the print magazine. I was a print magazine editor. And then the company brought in the video department, launched a video department. Nobody asked me to be a part of this video department but I volunteered to stand in front of the camera and see if I could be a host, see if I could host some shows.

And I had some kind of raw instinct on it, and the director really helped me hone it, and I got good, and I wondered, “What is the point of this? Why am I doing this? Is someone going to offer me a television show?” No, nobody offered me a television show. But I learned a couple of really valuable things. Number one, I learned to talk the way that I’m talking right now, which is to say to be animated, to kind of fluctuate the way in which I’m louder and then I’m softer, and I’m just trying to keep your interest.

Also, I learned how to be good on camera, how to move, how to think, how not to say uh a million times, and that then translated into a bunch of other skills like standing on stage. And, as a result, years later, when I was interviewing to be editor-in chief of Entrepreneur magazine and I’m talking to the president and CEO of the company, one of the things that they really liked about me was that I could represent the brand well, that they knew that, in hiring me, they had a face of the brand who could go on TV and could go on stage, and that helped me get this role.

And then, once I got this role, I started getting invitations to come speak on stage and make money doing so, and now that’s a really nice business for me. All of that I attribute to standing in front of a camera at Fast Company when nobody asked me to do that, and to just start learning. I was working my next job without having any idea what that next job was. And you, right now, have that opportunity in front of you. There are things available to you, nobody is asking you to do it so you have to do it.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s cool and beautiful. I guess my first thought in terms of that being challenging is there are a billion potential things you could go do.

Jason Feifer
Sure, there are.

Pete Mockaitis
So, how do we figure out which of these things are particularly worthwhile for us?

Jason Feifer
Well, the answer is that you cannot know so you’re going to have to take some bets, and you’re going to treat them as experiments. And this is important because something that we do too often is we think of every new thing that we try or do as a full commitment and, as a result, we don’t do them often enough. I was talking to two people who really informed my understanding of this. One is Katy Milkman who is at Wharton, and then Annie Duke who also has a Wharton connection.

Pete Mockaitis
Two fun guests of How to be Awesome at Your Job.

Jason Feifer
There you go. Well, I shall remind perhaps your listeners of things that they said, but Katy told me, we were talking about change and how to manage change, and I said, “What is the simplest thing that somebody can do?” And she said, “This is going to sound kind of like a pat answer, but the answer is experiment.”

And the reason for that is because most people do not. They think that everything that they do has to be a full-time commitment, and, therefore, they’re afraid to try it in the first place. But if we just go into everything, thinking, “This is an experiment, and I’m going to run it for a couple days, a couple weeks, a couple months, and I’m going to see if it gives me something.”

Well, then, you know what, even if it doesn’t work out, even if it’s not all that compelling to you, it is valuable. And it’s going to be valuable because you’re going to have treated it like an experiment, which means that if it doesn’t work, it’s not failure, it’s data. And that is a much more constructive way to think.

Annie, meanwhile, Annie has this great book called Quit, about why quitting is a great decision-making strategy. And she told me, and this really snapped this into focus for me, she said, “Look, imagine that you had to marry the first person you dated. What would you do? The answer is you would never date. You’d just never do it because you’d be afraid of making that commitment.”

The reason why we’re able to find the person who is right for us, hopefully, is because we are able to quit lots of other people before. We try and then we quit. And Annie said, “You have to just think of that for everything. We date ideas. We date projects. We date jobs. And we’re going to quit the ones that don’t work.”

So, to your question, “How do we figure out which ones to pursue?” I always start with, “What is compelling to me? What excites me? What builds upon, in some ways, the skills that I already have but takes me in a different direction? How do I think vertically, basically, instead of horizontally?” Entrepreneurs, I found, have this really magical way of thinking, which is vertical thinking, which is to say, “The only reason to do something is because it creates the foundation upon which the next thing can be built.”

Whereas, most people, myself included for a lot of my career, really think horizontally, which is to say I do something and then maybe I move along and I do something unrelated, and then I move along and I do something unrelated, and that doesn’t build, that doesn’t give me an ever-growing foundation so that I can level up, so that I can do more, so that I can accumulate people and connections and skills and insights that are, ultimately, all going to power whatever the next thing is that I do.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. That’s cool. Vertical thinking, yeah. Can you give us some examples of that in practice? So, you shared your instance of communication then getting on camera. Any other examples to make that vertical thinking concept land for folks?

Jason Feifer
Yeah, sure. So, here’s something really simple. For years, my career has been in media. I worked in a number of newspapers and then a number of national magazines, and now I also make podcasts, write books and stuff, and I run a national magazine. And throughout much of that time, I really thought of myself as mostly a servant to the task.

So, when I was at Men’s Health, for example, I would write about this thing, and then I’d move along and I’d write about that thing, and anybody who I met along the way is sand through fingers. You meet people and then you move along. And when I got to Entrepreneur, I started to realize I am meeting all of these people and I’m not taking any care to how they can be part of an ever-growing and useful network because I’m going to be doing things in the future, not now, but in the future where maybe I need these people.

And, like, for example, a book. We’re talking, we’re sort of prompted by that I have this book Build for Tomorrow come out, and I knew, years from now, I will have this book and I will need as many people as possible who like me, and who have audiences, and who I can call upon. And so, if I’m thinking vertically, what does that mean?

That means that I must accumulate, that the reason to do something is because it is going to build a foundation upon which the next thing will be built. Every little interaction that I have can be part of that. I created a spreadsheet; it’s called Good Contacts. Everybody I meet goes in it. Everybody. It’s a Google Sheet, and it has a million tabs in it – investors, media, entrepreneurs. And I’ve been doing this for years and years.

And when I launched my book, the very first thing I did, or months before, was I went into this sheet, and I started going through everybody. Rather, years before, I kept going through that sheet and I would reach out to people and I would check in with them, and I would say, “Hey, I loved that thing you just did.” “Hey, is there anything that I can help you out with?” Why? Because when you gather people, the last thing that people want is to only hear from you when you need something from them, so you got to be warm, you got to treat it like a real relationship.

And this kind of thing is something that I now try to apply to everything that I do, which is basically, “How can I use today for tomorrow? What is it that I have right now, what thing am I building, what thing am I thinking about, what do I have access to, how can I make decisions where I’m putting my energy towards setting myself up for tomorrow even if I don’t exactly know what I need tomorrow? But what I do know is that today is an opportunity to do that, and I want to be mindful of it?”

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. All right. Well, now, I’m shifting gears a little bit, when you talk about change, you mentioned there’s four phases of change. Can you give us that overview picture and some pro tips on what do we do to change well?

Jason Feifer
Yeah. All right. So, here’s the theory that I came up. I came up with this theory that change happens in four phases: panic, adaptation, new normal, wouldn’t go back. Wouldn’t go back being that moment where we say, “I have something, some new and valuable that I wouldn’t want to go back to a time before I had it.”

And this came out of pre-pandemic. I had come to this conclusion that the most successful people that I met were also the most adaptable, and I wanted to understand what it was that they were doing and how they were thinking. And then the pandemic was a really fascinating experiment because what happened was you got to see everybody go through the same change at the same time and then radically diverge.

And some people moved forward, some people reinvented, others tried to cling as tightly as possible to whatever came before and whatever they felt like they were losing. And I wanted to understand what it was that the people who were moving fast and forward were doing and thinking. And they’re doing a lot of things but I’ll start by sharing this one.

Most of us make a mistake, and the mistake that we make is that we identify too closely with the output of our work or with the role that we occupy so that if someone came up to you at a party and asked what you did, your answer would be one of those two things. It would either be a thing that you make or the role that you occupy. And that’s fine, that makes sense. I would do a version of that, too, but it creates a problem.

And the problem is that those things are easily changeable. And if we anchor ourselves too deeply to the tasks we perform or the role that we occupy, then when those things change, and they will, then we will not just experience a change to our work; we’ll experience a change to our identity. And that’s what creates a total sense of disruption and panic. So, what’s a better thing to do?

Well, look, there’s a lot of talk, Simon Sinek had Start with Why, and then everybody talks about why, and I’ve always found that to be, honestly, a little bit of an abstract concept. And what I came to realize is that I think what we need is a mission statement in which every word that we select is carefully selected because it is not anchored to something that easily changes. What does that mean, abstract?

I used to identify as a newspaper reporter. Then I identified as a magazine editor. I stayed in jobs, newspaper jobs and magazine jobs that I disliked for way too long, becoming way too bitter. And the reason I did it was because I was a newspaper reporter or I was a magazine editor. The very idea of leaving those jobs and, therefore, giving up that identity was too challenging, and, therefore, I couldn’t bring myself to get out of bad situations.

Now, I have a sentence for myself, and that sentence is this, it’s seven words, “I tell stories in my own voice.” I tell stories. Story is a really important word for me. And the reason for it is because it is not anchored to something that is easily changeable. I don’t own Entrepreneur magazine, my boss can call me at any time, he has my phone number, and he can fire me. He could do it right now. And if my identity is “I am a magazine editor,” then I am one phone call away from losing my identity. That’s a terrible place to be.

But if I can think of myself as I tell stories and then in my own voice, that’s me setting the terms for how I want to operate, that’s me at this moment in my career. Well, now, when something changes, I have an understanding of the transferrable value that I have. I understand what I am, and I understand what I’m good at, and I know that it is not dependent upon one way that I used to do it. And when we have that understanding of ourselves, what we’re really doing is liberating ourselves from being stuck in one mode, in one job, in one task.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m intrigued by that notion, in your own voice. I’m thinking about Entrepreneur magazine, Fast Company, Men’s Health, each of them – well, you tell me, you’re the insider – has some guidelines, I imagine, associated with their voice, their tone, their style, their flavor. Are you able to tell stories within your own voice at each of these different outlets?

Jason Feifer
Well, I wouldn’t have said I tell stories in my own voice when I was at Men’s Health, and, really not even at Fast Company because I was at a different stage in my career at the time. The mission statement should evolve. When I was at Men’s Health, for example, I was in my late 20s. It was my first national magazine job. I worked at a couple local newspapers and a regional magazine before that.

Pete Mockaitis
And you had a shredded six pack.

Jason Feifer
And I had a shredded six pack, and I only ate vitamins. And I got there and I was, at the time, I was guided by this thing that I’m still, in many ways, guided by, which are these two questions, which is, “What do I need to learn? And have I learned it?” And so, I arrived at Men’s Health knowing what I needed to learn.

I needed to learn how to edit at a national magazine level, and, in particular, Men’s Health was really good at a kind of editing called packaging, which is lots of little bitsy items. It was very hard because you had to convey a lot of information in not a lot of space. And I wanted to get good at that. And a couple of years in, I had done it.

And so, when I asked my questions, “What do I need to learn? And have I learned it?” the answer is, “I knew what I needed to learn and I’ve learned it. It’s time to get the hell out of here.” But I’m not interested in what else someone tell me that I have to. Like, I need to go. And I did. I’ve never once in my career, and this is not career advice, you choose your own path.

But I’ve never once, like, gotten a job offer and then come back to my boss, and be like, “Oh, I got this job offer. Can you give me more money?” No, because when I’m out, I’m out. It’s time to go learn something else. That’s the thing that matters most to me. So, back then, I was writing in the Men’s Health voice, and the Men’s Health voice had a very, very particular style and a particular tone, and my voice was subsumed into that voice. But I also was younger and I didn’t have a stronger voice, and I didn’t have a stronger perspective, and I didn’t have something to tell people myself.

At Fast Company, it was roughly the same thing. I found a voice there but it’s very different from the voice I have now. I wasn’t as confident in it and I was still learning. I took that job because there was something else that I wanted to learn, which in that case was feature editing and feature writing and then eventually also video.

And so, I wasn’t really ready to speak in my own voice until much later in my career. Back then, had I gone through this exercise, and I hadn’t because I still just thought of myself as a magazine editor, I was anchored to my tasks, but back then I would’ve said, “My job is to be a good magazine maker.” The thing that I do is I take magazine jobs and I write really good stories and I edit really good stories. It was very limited because that’s how most people think.

Most people think that the thing that they are is the thing that they do. And it wasn’t until much, much later, after I’d gone through a lot of disruption in my own career, and I was trying to figure out how to feel a sense of ownership over myself, because when you’re just at the mercy of a company that you work for, you don’t have a lot of ownership over you.

But if you can spend some time thinking about what you are separate from that, and what value you have that can be brought to many different places, and people are lucky to have you, you start to feel more of a sense of ownership over yourself. I think that’s really important. And this exercise was a way in which I got there.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, tell us, when you talked about the exercises and the reflections and the key questions, any other powerful practices that help serve up these insights?

Jason Feifer
Yeah, I’ll give you another exercise to run yourself through, which is “What do I have? What do I need? What’s available?” I like the word available. Let me tell you what that was. Okay, my first job was at The Gardner News. I don’t even know if it still exists, but at the time it was like 6,000 circulation daily newspaper in North Central Massachusetts. I was a general interest reporter, fresh out of college, $20,000 a year.

And I hated that job. I hated it. And the reason I hated it was because I had these large ambitions and they were not being met, and I couldn’t figure out the pathway to meet them. I was at this tiny little paper, I wanted to do bigger work, and I couldn’t articulate it, and I didn’t have access to it, and I was really frustrated.

And as a result, I was taking the wrong path, because I was blaming the people I was working with for, like, holding me back. They weren’t holding me back. I was holding me back. But eventually I did this thing that I wasn’t doing it so consciously back then. But now that I look back upon what I did and kind of come up with a little framework, I realized that what I did was that I asked myself these three questions, which is, “What do I have? What do I need? And what’s available?”

So, break it down for that experience. What do I have? I have a job, and it’s not a very satisfying job but it is a job doing a thing that I want to do, but what I want is to work in a much higher level. What do I need? Well, the problem, if we’re being realistic, is that I don’t have the experience to prove to anybody at a higher level that they should hire me. I have nothing. I have nothing except for this small credential, which is that I’ve worked at this tiny newspaper, which The New York Times is not going to take seriously if I go apply in The New York Times.

What do I need? What I need is I need more experience and I need to work with editors who I’m going to be able to learn from because right now, I’m at a tiny little newspaper, and my peers are not much more experienced than I am, and I’m not learning from them. So, I need access to talent, and I need to be able to prove myself at a higher level.

What’s available? Well, this is the hard one because you can’t answer it with a fantasy. It’s not “What’s available is, ‘Oh, why don’t I just apply for dream jobs.’” It’s not “What’s available is, ‘Oh, maybe I’ll just kick the can down the road and we’ll try to figure it out in a couple of years.’” No. What’s available right now? Like, literally, if you’re stuck, something is available to you right now. Something. What is it? Find the door where you’re looking at a wall.

And, in my case, in that particular situation, I thought, “Well, okay, nobody’s going to hire me, The New York Times is not hiring me, but there’s another way in.” And the way in, in my industry, this is freelancing, which is to say that a lot of what you read in newspapers and magazines are written by freelancers. They’re independent contractors who generally pitch a single story and an editor had said yes to it, and then they go out and they report to that single story.

I thought, “Why don’t I start doing that?” So, I quit. I quit that first job and I just started cold-pitching. And I was going to them instead of waiting for them to come to me.

And, as a result, after many, many, many, many months of pitching and getting rejected or ignored, I got a piece in The Washington Post, I got a piece in The Boston Globe, and I started to build this freelance career that, ultimately, allowed me to prove to other publications at a much faster clip, that I could work at their level. And that was what ultimately helped me build the career that I have. It’s what jumpstarted things.

And I look back on it now, and I say the reason I was able to do that was because I thought through that transition, because I didn’t stay at that job. What I needed to do was figure out what was available to me, realistically so, and then put myself in a position to go get it.

Pete Mockaitis
Jason, I love that notion associated with it’s kind of like you’re stuck, but then something is available, and it’s the freelancing. And I’m thinking about someone else, actually, she was on the podcast, Kristen Berndt, her dream was to do, like, baggage operations for airports, which is fun, like, that’s her thing, and yet she had no opening there. She just literally started a blog all about this.

Jason Feifer
I love that.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, there’s one approach. You do some writing, either for the publications or on a blog or social media, LinkedIn posts, whatever, a podcast. You create some media such that it’s like, “Oh, look, this person is an expert and can do some stuff that’s good.” What are some other approaches if you feel kind of stuck? Like, what’s available is sort of hard to see from where you’re sitting.

Jason Feifer
And it started by asking, “What do I have and what don’t I have? And what don’t I even know I need?” I don’t know if you remember, but Donald Rumsfeld was the Secretary of Defense during the George W. Bush administration.

And, in the leadup to the Iraq invasion, a reporter asked him something, and he responded in this crazy, like, lyrical weird poetry thing that people made fun of him for, which was that he said, “There are known knowns. There are known unknowns. And there are unknown unknowns.” And people thought that was nonsense and it made for late-night joke fodder, but I was curious about it because I thought, “That’s not something that you just come up with on-the-fly. That has to be from something.”

And it is. It’s from a thing called The Johari Window, which is a self-assessment test, popularized in the 1970s, that then became very popular in military circles. It was actually a pretty useful way to evaluate a situation, “What do we know? What do we know that we don’t know? What don’t we know that we don’t know?”

And I realized that if we do a version of that for ourselves, we’d run ourselves through a little test like that when we’re feeling stuck, as you would ask, we get some interesting stuff. You can ask yourself, “What do I know that other people know?” All right, you’re at a job, you’re stuck, you’re feeling stuck, “What do I know that other people know?” “Well, here are the things you know.”

“What do I know that other people don’t know?” basically what is your competitive advantage. What are you really good at that maybe other people aren’t? “What do other people know that I don’t know?” Well, now, you can start to look around. You can see that people who maybe were your peers had taken radical interesting shifts, and they’re now doing interesting things. You can see that people are in fields that seem really intriguing to you, that you think you would be good at but you just don’t know that much about, and maybe it’s time to ask them.

And now the most terrifying question of all, of course, is, “What don’t I know that other people know? What am I not even thinking about? What am I not even looking at? What am I not even seeing?” And that should drive you to start to talk to people to explore what they have done, what path they took, what risks they took, and what were calculated risks that maybe seem crazy to you but actually seem pretty logical to them.

And what you’re doing, just to go back to Katy Milkman one more time, is you’re bridging what Katy told me, is called the false consensus effect. False consensus effect means that we tend to think that other people think exactly like us, and, therefore, we don’t think to use them as resources. But it turns out that people think pretty differently than us.

And when we ask them what they have done, and how they have done it, they will reveal to us all sorts of insights that we weren’t aware of. And those things can help us start to illuminate some of those unknown unknowns. And that will give you the path forward that you aren’t seeing right now.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Beautiful. Well, now, could you share a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Jason Feifer
Yeah. I was interviewing Ryan Reynolds for Entrepreneur magazine, and we were talking about the career shifts that he’s made. He’s gone from acting into business, there’s a number of them. And he told me, “To be good at something, you have to be willing to be bad.” And I love that because it’s true, because we often assume that if we’re not good at something at the beginning, it’s because maybe we’re not going to be good at it.

But what Ryan is saying is that the difference maker isn’t whether or not we’re good at something at the beginning, but rather whether or not we’re willing to tolerate being bad long enough to get to good. That’s the thing that weeds people out, it’s that most of us aren’t able to tolerate that discomfort. But the ones who are, are the ones who get there.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite book?

Jason Feifer
I, as a kid, read Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius, which was a memoir. And the thing that mattered most to me about it was that it was written in a style and played with language in a way that I didn’t know was possible. And the things that I love consuming the most are the things that show me that the boundaries are not where I think they are. And that was, I think, the first time that I consumed something that really showed that to me.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite tool, something that helps you be more awesome at your job?

Jason Feifer
This is not going to be an exceptional tool, but I will tell you the thing that I live by, which is the native Reminders app on the MacBook and on my iPhone. They sync so that I can add something on the Reminders app on my phone, and there it is on my computer. And I look at that thing every 10 minutes, and every time somebody tells me something, it goes on there. And as I’m half falling asleep at night, I think, “Oh, crap, I didn’t tell that person that thing,” and it goes on that Reminders app, and I couldn’t leave home without it.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And is there a key nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks; they quote it back to you often?

Jason Feifer
Yeah. I do a lot of speaking, and so I travel around and I talk to groups. And the thing that people always come up to me after my talk and tell me is their mission statement, the thing that I shared with you earlier. I have a whole exercise for how to get there, and I walk people through it. It’s in the book.

And afterwards they come to me and they tell me their mission statement, or they email me afterwards and they tell me their mission statement. And I think the reason they’re doing that is because it feels like a breakthrough when you’ve done that for yourself, and they just have to share.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Jason Feifer
I would point them to a couple places. Number one, my book is called Build for Tomorrow. I’d love for you to check it out. Also, you’re a listener of podcasts, I am a maker of podcasts. I have a podcast; it’s called Help Wanted.

I co-host it with Nicole Lapin, who’s a bestselling finance author. And what we do is we take people’s problems, often they’d call into the show, work problems, career problems, and we talk it through them in real time, or at least we take their questions, and then Nicole and I debate them and come to the right answer. And our goal is to help you build a career in a company you love, and you should check it out. It’s called Help Wanted.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Jason Feifer
Yeah, I’m going to tell you another quote, and I want you to spend time with it. And the quote is this, this is something that Malcolm Gladwell told me. We were talking about how he decides what products or what projects, rather, to take on. And he told me that he really pushes against trying to think of himself too narrowly, and to think of his voice and style and the things that he does too narrowly. And the reason, he said, is because self-conceptions are powerfully limiting.

Self-conceptions are powerfully limiting. That’s basically my call to action to you, is to consider what your self-conception is, and how that is limiting you because, the thing is, that if we define ourselves too narrowly, we turn down all the amazing opportunities around us that don’t meet that narrow definition. But what happens if we loosen the grip, that I think is where growth happens.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Jason, this has been a treat. I wish you much luck and fun as you build for tomorrow.

Jason Feifer
Hey, thanks for having me.

837: How to Transition to a Better Career Future with Tricia Sitemere

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Tricia Sitemere says: "Take CONTROL of your future, ALTer your mindset, and DELETE all doubt."

Tricia Sitemere discusses how to prepare for and successfully execute a career transition.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The CTRL + ALT + DELETE mantra for developing your career.
  2. The toxic trait holding many professionals back.
  3. The telltale signs it’s time for a switch—and how to start.

About Tricia

Tricia Sitemere is an action centered Career Strategist and Consultant supporting mid-career professionals on their career transition and professional development journeys. She is a published author, an international speaker, an alumna of the University of Texas at Arlington, where she earned her degree in Advertising, and Simmons University where she earned a master’s degree in Communication Management. She currently resides in Dallas, TX but works with clients all over the world.

Resources Mentioned

Tricia Sitemere Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Tricia, welcome to How to be Awesome at Your Job.

Tricia Sitemere
Hi, Pete. How are you? Thank you for having me.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, I’m doing great. Doing great. I’m excited to talk career, strategery, and mindsets, and finding great opportunities. But, first, I need to hear about you and the oboe. What’s the story here?

Tricia Sitemere
Oh, my goodness. Okay. So, I played the oboe for six years, and, initially, I wanted to play the drums. And I’m talking to my mom about it, and the first thing that she’s really thinking of is, “I don’t want this girl banging drums in my house.” And so, she was like, “Pick a quieter instrument.” That definitely backfired on her because the oboe is not really quiet.

And I would think that it’s kind of an acquired taste just from a sound perspective. And so, I played the oboe for six years, I marched in the marching band. In high school, I played clarinet doing that, and then spent two years in color guard, so I’m a band geek, and I absolutely love music.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. I was going to say, can you march an oboe? But, yeah, all right, clarinet. I did marching band, four years saxophone, in high school. And at one time, I went to the Drum Corps International World Championships in Indianapolis just to see what that was about. It was just as cool as I thought it would be. So, I’m totally down. Totally down.

Tricia Sitemere
Nice. Nice. Yeah, I was at a parade just yesterday, and it was cool to see all of the bands assembled in their band uniforms, and I was like, “Oh, my gosh, that was my life once upon a time.”

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah, I remember we did the competitions, it felt like the most important thing is that we were going to make the state finals. I think at one point, I thoughtfully considered and said I’d be willing to trade a pinky in order to achieve that objective.

Tricia Sitemere
Oh, I don’t think I was that committed.

Pete Mockaitis
It was just funny because I didn’t practice all that hard but I’m willing to part with a finger, I was like, “I know my music, I know my spot, that’s right.” All right. Well, so that’s that story. Now, so your company, it’s called CTRL Alt Delete.

Tricia Sitemere
Yes.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I remember back in my marching band days, I would push Ctrl-Alt-Delete a lot on a PC back in the day. Can you tell us what is this organization? What’s your work about? And what’s behind the name?

Tricia Sitemere
Yeah. So, CTRL Alt Delete is a professional development and career coaching company. CTRL Alt Delete actually stands for take control of your future, alter your mindset, and delete all doubt.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, there you go.

Tricia Sitemere
It’s kind of a…yeah, it’s a personal mantra of mine. It is the mantra that I share with my clients. It’s kind of a baseline for a lot of the things that I do. I think it’s very relevant when you think about your career that you do need to be the one that takes control. And sometimes you do need that change in mindset and how you think about things, and deleting the doubt, and being confident in who you are, your abilities, what you bring to the table, your leadership, your influence. Those are all very important to the clients that I serve.

And so, I coach folks one on one, specifically mid-career professionals around career transitions, career advancement and growth. And then I take a lot of the case studies and the things that I’m seeing, the trends that I’m seeing when I’m supporting my one-on-one clients, and I create training programs for HR teams so that they can set their managers up to success, to better support their employees, which, in turn, increases employee retention, employee engagement, those types of things. So, it’s a very rewarding work and I absolutely love it.

Pete Mockaitis
Fantastic. Well, I love those three steps there. Can you tell us a cool story about someone who did just that, they took control of their career, they altered their mindset, they deleted doubt? Like, walk us through what did they do and what were the results?

Tricia Sitemere
I will take you back to where this all started, and I would say the first person that I know that had to take control of their future, alter their mindset, and delete all doubt was me. And I bounced around from a bunch of different careers. I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do. And I had a lot of interests but I was just kind of blowing in the wind. I was like, “Okay, I’m going to go back to school.” I got a Master’s.

And came back to Dallas, I went to graduate school in Boston. Shout out to Simmons University. I moved back to Dallas and was still kind of blowing in the wind. And the first thing that I did to kind of take control of my career and my future was a really deep self-assessment, like, “What do I like? What do I not like? What am I good at? What do I want to be good at? What do I want my career to look like?” And I just started putting a plan in place for myself.

In terms of altering the mindset around that, I studied communication management in graduate school, and I thought that I was going to go into, like, crisis communication, working for the Red Cross, managing communication strategy for natural disasters and terrible things. And that was not a space I wanted to spend my time in.

And for a while I thought I was stuck, I was like, “Okay, this is what I have spent the money for. My parents have already paid for this advanced degree. I have to stay in this space.” And it wasn’t until I started thinking about my situation differently and opening my mindset and being open to what my career was going to look like, and being open to having conversations, exploring different things, I continued to feel stuck.

And so, that was when I was able to alter my mindset. And then the deleting all doubt, I don’t think that this is an off-and-on switch kind of thing. I think deleting doubt is something that takes time. It’s something that grows within yourself as you continue to learn about yourself, as you continue to sharpen skills, and just kind of get to know yourself better.

And so, when I was diving further into, “What is my career going to look like?” I started in learning and development, and then I went into recruiting. It wasn’t until I had gotten used to the role, my confidence started to grow, and then I was really able to start deleting the doubt, like, “Hey, Tricia, you can do this. Hey, Tricia, you’re thinking about this in a really positive way. Hey, Tricia, you have some good leadership skills that are driving the team.”

And then, from there, I was able to have a wildly successful career in HR before transitioning into what I do with CTRL Alt Delete. And so, that’s a story that is personal to me because I lived it, and it was really something that I see in a lot of my one-on-one clients. When they come to me, they are often frustrated, whether they’re not fulfilled in their role, they’re feeling bored, there’s financial constraints.

And I help them put a plan together in place so that they can take control of their future. I always tell folks, “You need to be an active participant in your own life.” And taking control is the first step in doing that, saying, “Hey, I’m not just going to live simply off of the things that I am getting.” If there are opportunities, specific to CTRL Alt Delete, career opportunities, or growth and development opportunities that you’re interested in, you have to take control, and then the rest of the things, they kind of fall into place as you build out your action plan, but that’s an example for you.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s beautiful. Thank you. Well, can you share with us a few key actions that control alt deleters do or don’t do that many of us just kind of neglect?

Tricia Sitemere
Yeah, I would say toxic positivity and not being completely honest with yourself about different situations. Obviously, we’re talking about the career space, but I think one of the things that my clients are really good at is building that transparency and having those honest conversations with yourself, whether that is in terms of, “I thought I was really strong in X, Y, Z space. And after taking some time kind of digging into it, getting feedback, having conversations, maybe I’m not so great at this.”

That’s kind of where the confidence and that transparency internally kind of cross because sometimes you feel like you’re really good at something, and sometimes you’re not as great as maybe you think you are, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. That gives you the opportunity to stop and say, “Hey, okay, this is how I want to improve,” or, “These are some resources or tools or connections that I have access to that will help me get to the point where I want to be, thus letting me do X, Y, Z.” You know what I’m saying?

So, definitely, having those transparent conversations, I will say, is something that I coach to. And for a lot of people, it can be a blind spot that can hinder your career growth.

Pete Mockaitis
So, the blind spot is that they just quickly put a positive spin or sheen on things as oppose to taking a hard look, and saying, “Oh, I’m not so good at Excel,” or copywriting, or facilitating meetings, or whatever that thing may be, and, thus, they don’t ever really get the opportunity to open that door and then begin improving because they’re unaware of the shortcomings.

Tricia Sitemere
Right, to grow.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Tricia Sitemere
To grow, yeah. Another thing that I would say is you hear a lot about having a growth mindset, having an open mindset, and being able to look at all of your opportunities that are being presented to you, and it sounds nice. You’re talking about growth with your manager, your friends, family, whatever, you’re like, “You know, I’m really in a space where I’m allowing myself to grow.”

Well, there are certain things that you have to do in order to foster growth and to actually see the traction and the changes that you want, which include commitment and consistency. And so, it’s nice to say, “Hey, I’m doing all of these things,” but actually doing them and not just saying, “Hey, I have a growth mindset. I’m open to these opportunities,” without the action piece, because that’s really what is important and what is going to drive the change.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Very cool. So, then, I’m curious, when it comes to the deleting all doubt, are there specific practices, tools, disciplines that you engage in to do the actual deleting?

Tricia Sitemere
Yes. So, I talked a little bit about having honest conversations, being open to awareness around your blind spots, maybe where you’re not as strong. On the other side of that, there are things that you absolutely excel at, that when someone says, “Oh, my goodness, I need…” you mentioned Excel so I’ll just keep on going with that example, “I need an Excel guru.” If that’s you, that’s something that you can build on so that you can start deleting some of that doubt.

And so, I think looking at both ends is definitely something that will help you delete all doubt. Getting feedback is an activity that I have a lot of my clients do when they’re struggling in that space, and they’re really struggling to decide, “Okay, what are strengths that I want to continue to grow? And what are my transferrable skills?” I work with them to do a little bit of a self-assessment. And part of that assessment, it’s asking for feedback. So, I’ll have them talk to a manager, a colleague, so, it, one, helps them get an outside view of, “Okay, this is maybe a strength I want to work on,” or, “This is maybe an area of opportunity.”

But if they are really good in those things, hearing it from someone else, and having that little bit of external validation is it can be key because it’s like, “Okay, I thought I was good at this in my head, but now I’m hearing from other people who have the opportunity to experience how I deliver X, Y, Z, and they are also very confident in my ability.” So, that’s going to help over time, those check-ins with yourself and getting feedback from others to help you grow that confidence and delete all doubt.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And I’m curious, when it comes to your clients, I imagine, often, by the time they find you, they might be pretty ready to make a change.

Tricia Sitemere
Oh, yeah. They’re like, “Tricia, we need this to happen last week,” and I’m like, “I get it. I understand 100%.” And the other part of that is sometimes career transitions, they take time. There are so many factors that are outside of your control, that we talk about this when we’re getting started, that we’ll take a little bit of patience.

And that’s not a favorite part of coaching, is having to coach to the patience piece but I see it time and time again, those that can be patient, who do the work and stay consistent, committed, there’s lots of opportunities and great things on the other side of that.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so I’m curious, if we find ourselves in that position, where, “Okay, the job is fine. Maybe we should be thinking about making a switch,” can you walk us through kind of the step-by-step and then some of your favorite tactics or tools or tricks you use in each of them to really make a lot of progress fast?

Tricia Sitemere
Yes. The first thing I would say is not ignoring the signs. We know when there have been shifts in our mood and when we’re disgruntled or frustrated or stressed out about a situation, and people will make different excuses for why they may feel like they’re in that space. If you are starting to feel that, explore that, whether it is having a conversation with a friend or your spouse, or a conversation with a coworker as long as it’s nothing too crazy because they’re going to be able to understand some of those key players at work, some of those situations at work.

And then once you’ve kind of have gotten to a place where you’re like, “Okay, I think I know what this is. I think I know kind of where this is coming from,” almost like a root-cause analysis, I always empower people to ask for help. You don’t have to go through all of this by yourself, whether that is help from a manager, you’re like, “Hey, I’m kind of struggling with this space. What can we do in terms of support?”

Coaching. I’m not plugging coaching because I’m a coach, but I had worked with coaches, I have had coaches myself, but then I’ve also seen the impact that working with a coach can have. So, that would also be one of the things that I would recommend. And it’s almost like you have to kind of gather a bunch of information for yourself.

You go into this fact-finding after you’ve had these conversations, and now you’re asking yourself, “Okay, I know this isn’t what I want right now. What do I want?” and kind of dream it up real big, is what I tell my clients all the time. Dream it up real big and then move to, “Okay, I want to be an astronaut.” Obviously, for me, Pete, I’m not going to be an astronaut right now. What does it look like to get to that point?

And then in terms of getting that momentum going, and feeling good about the strides that you’re making, because we talked about patience being a key part of making the change, is giving yourself small digestible goals that will increase and kind of build into hitting some of those bigger goals that you have.

When you set a goal for yourself, sometimes you’re like, “Oh, my gosh, this goal is so far away. I’m never going to get there,” and that can cause some stress and it can cause some frustration. So, breaking it down into those smaller goals and celebrating the small wins, that’s going to really help you get the momentum, get the energy up, continue to keep the juices flowing, and it’ll also help you stay more consistent.

And then another thing that I would recommend in that space of doing that is share some of these things with people that champion and support you. And I’d talked about a supporting cast in my book, and it is really your supporting cast. Just like the lead in a movie, you have the supporting cast that helps make things happen. Sharing the things and the changes and the career aspirations that you have with your supporting cast, they are going to be able to lift you up when maybe you’re having a bad day.

Or, if you hit one of those smaller goals, or a bigger goal, it’s so great to be able to share and celebrate that with someone who is rooting for you. So, yeah, those would be a couple of my tips and kind of the walkthrough through the process. I love celebrating. I celebrate everything. I celebrate everything and, I tell you, it really does make a huge difference to be able to celebrate the person that you’re spending so much time working on yourself. What better project to work on and to focus on than yourself?

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. Well, let’s say we’ve gotten past the soul-searching phase and we’ve got some specific companies, roles, positions posted that we’re eyeing, and going, “Ooh, that’s enticing.” I’d love it if you could share some of your favorite job-hunting tips, whether it’s on the LinkedIn side, or the networking side, or the resume, or the cover letter, or the interview side, what are a couple things that just work like magic that you’re a huge fan of?

Tricia Sitemere
Yeah, I’m a huge fan of LinkedIn. When I was coming up through HR, I used LinkedIn a ton, both sending messages but being recruited from my engagement and participation on LinkedIn. So, I coach to LinkedIn. It’s not the only way but I particularly really like it just because it connects so many people from so many spaces that you might not even cross paths with in your everyday life.

And so, in terms of, like, if you see a role that you’re really excited about, you can search the title of the role, and you can see other folks that are in that particular space, and you can kind of do a little bit of sleuthing, see what kind of things they post about. Oftentimes, they will talk about things that are going on within the company or within the industry, where their company has been in the news.

All of that information is intel that you can, A, use if you reach out to a particular person or if you’re in an opportunity to network, it shows that you know what’s going on. And, two, all of that information can be really, really helpful in an interview. It shows that you’ve taken the time to investigate and research what’s going on within the industry, within the particular company, or if it’s even a specific team that the role that you’re interested in is on. All of that are data points that you can use in your career toolkit to help you make those connections and build those relationships to get into the role.

So, I would say those are some of the things that I’d recommend for LinkedIn. Connected to LinkedIn, people do not like sending blind invitations or messages on LinkedIn, and I get it because I do get my fair share of, “This is an interesting message in my inbox” kind of thing, but there are ways that you can grab the attention of the person that you’re reaching out, whether it is mentioning something you guys have in common, or you guys went to the same alma mater, or the same school, mentioning something that they’ve recently posted.

There are different ways that you can reach out so it’s not just this spammy message that you’re sending to probably someone who gets a lot of messages similar to that. So, here on LinkedIn, it says, “Hi, I’m a hiring manager.” Some people may reach out to you about X, Y, Z jobs, and sometimes they’re maybe not the greatest message, they don’t really share any information, so there’s no incentive, I guess, on the other end for that person to respond.

And so, doing some of this recon on the frontend is going to help you craft your messages, and type it up, take a deep breath, and send it. Sometimes people won’t respond, but sometimes they will, and those can lead to some really, really great conversations. And then the other thing that I would say, or the last thing that I would say in terms of researching job and reaching out to folks and looking for work on LinkedIn, is following up.

Following up and showing up are huge. They’re so huge. If someone that you’ve reached out to reaches back to you, don’t wait a week and a half to respond. I get things happen but it’s all about keeping that momentum going, so respond to them. If you guys have something scheduled, show up. And that sounds a little elementary but I had spent almost 10 years with hiring managers, and I am always blown away by how many people just don’t show up to interviews and don’t communicate.

And so, I always feel like that’s something worth mentioning. And so, just taking that, building those relationships, having those conversations, sometimes there’s opportunities that are available more immediately, just like with any relationship, networking including, it takes a little bit of work. And so, don’t just completely disregard a relationship because it didn’t result in a job right away.

They might have something coming down the pipeline one month, two months, six months. We don’t know what that will look like. So, continuing to cultivate those relationships is also something that’s going to be super key.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Beautiful. Well, tell me Tricia, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Tricia Sitemere
Feel empowered to create the life you love. I think some would say that sounds corny or that sounds cheesy but I think it’s so important. We have this one life to live. And you should be able to live it on your own terms with things and people and experiences that you want to have a part of your life. So, that’s what I would say.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Beautiful. Well, now could you share a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Tricia Sitemere
“Everything you can imagine is real,” by Pablo Picasso. And I think that ties in perfectly to what I just said about creating the life that you love. Everything you can imagine is real. And sometimes it does take that shift in mindset to start to bring some of those things to fruition or realize, “Hey, this isn’t exactly what it looked like in my mind but it’s exactly what I’m looking for.” Yeah, that’s my favorite.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Tricia Sitemere
It’s actually a case study, and it’s from one of my favorite books, Mindset actually by Carol Dweck. And it is exploring the impact of a fixed mindset versus a growth mindset and a false growth mindset. And it’s a study and she’s working with children that are in elementary school. And so, it’s like she has one group who are told, like, “Hey, you can do anything. You’re great at all these different things,” and she studies how they perform versus another group of students who are kind of being coached or fed that, “This is not in your skillset,” and she monitors how each of the groups react.

And she uses this study to kind of talk through the importance of fostering a growth mindset and paying attention to the different things that we tell ourselves, and being transparent and honest with ourselves and some of the other things that I had mentioned. And I obviously work with mid-career professionals, but some of this stuff around mindset and feeling equipped starts so much earlier than when I work with them. And so, that wasn’t a study that I was thinking I would come across, and it’s really interesting. It’s in her book, Mindset.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Cool. And a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job?

Tricia Sitemere
Ooh, I’m a checklist girl, Pete. Do you like checklists?

Pete Mockaitis
I do, yes.

Tricia Sitemere
I’m a checklist girl. I’m a calendar girl. I keep a to-do list. I keep list of several different sorts actually, but in terms of being awesome at my job, at the end of every single day, I will review my list of deliverables, or tasks, or clients I need to follow up with, and just kind of put a cap on my day so that when I get started in the morning, I can hit the ground running.

Or, I can take a look at my list, and say, “Okay, this doesn’t exactly fall into place with what I thought my day would look like because there’s fires, there’s things that pop up,” but I use that as my guide. And then I’m also really big about calendaring and blocking time off to do different things, and that is so helpful. It helps me feel very organized and it’s like, “Okay, if things get crazy, at least I know I have dedicated time to focus and do my very best work on this thing because I’ve blocked out time for it.” So, those are my two biggest tips that I use, my two biggest tools.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And is there a key nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks; people quote it back to you often?

Tricia Sitemere
CTRL Alt Delete.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, there you go, yeah.

Tricia Sitemere
Which, obviously, is a delight to me. I’ll run into folks, and they’re like, “What are you doing to take control of your future or alter your mindset?” And I’m like, “Let’s talk about it.” And they’re like, “Oh, my goodness, now I’m in a conversation with Tricia. This is going to turn into a coaching session.”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Tricia Sitemere
Yes, you can find me on my website TriciaSitemere.com. I’m also on YouTube under the same name, also on LinkedIn, and Instagram. I post a variety of different free resources, information, and tips on all of those. And I look forward to engaging.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. This has been a treat, Tricia. Keep on rocking.

Tricia Sitemere
Thank you. Thank you so much, Pete, for having me. I appreciate you.