February 27, 2014

Seven Keywords from Social Media Week NYC 2014

This past week, I attended Social Media Week here in New York City, at my company's sponsorship, and it was definitely an incredible experience. SMW has been held in NYC for the last six years, and I've attended the last three. Every year, I make some incredible connections, learn a heckuva lot, and came away with some great ideas and quotes that I intend to use.

The biggest change this year was them having a single, centralized location for the majority of the events. A single staging ground, combined with the volunteers actively clearing the room after each session, made this conference a lot more tolerable than it has been in years before. In addition, I no longer work in Financial District and have to "commute" to Flatiron; the stage was in this CRAZY out of the way location (over by Chelsea Market, at 15th and 9th Ave) but I work in Flatiron now, so getting to the convention center was a matter of two trains and walking a good block and a half. Basically: it wasn't too bad.

It was also the largest Social Media Week I've ever seen. Talk after talk was filled to standing-room-only, and nearly every masterclass was filled to capacity. Most of the panels and talks were also streamed by LiveStream, and the videos continue to remain in perpetuate, linked from the individual event pages. I attended about half of my planned events digitally and half physically, and the experience for both was comparable. We live in the future, and it's basically amazing.

I often have found that Social Media Week tends to talk to large agencies and PR firms more than startups and smaller houses. That was not the case this year; there's a convergence happening in media, and large agencies have begun pushing towards representing themselves the way startups do, or at least engaging their users and fans in ways more in tune with new media entities (e.g. Buzzfeed, whose name was all over this year's SMW) and their strategies. Mercifully, "millennials" was a seldom-used word.

September 17, 2013

It’s a Hard Knock Lyfe

So as 2013 stumbles along, I've been doing a lot of self-reflection and collating my experiences into meaningful pieces of advice I can pass on to others. This entry is basically the result of that.

Full disclosure: I've written this entry multiple times because Real Life keeps happening to me thus the "top five" keep shifting. I'm posting this entry at last because some of these things have stayed constant enough, and because I'm happy enough with this list to let this go. In fact...

1. Good enough is probably perfect.

This is something I think anyone whose job has even a modicum of creative process associated with it ends up running into. I know I'm a pretty detail-oriented person and I want something done right as much as I want it completed. Alas, life isn't always about what you want. If something needs to be done, it needs to be done and often on someone else's schedule.

At some point, you have to stop agonizing and analyzing and editing whatever you've created -- code, prose, whatever -- and send it out there into the world. Chances are if, in the moment, you were "happy enough" with it, you'll be exceedingly happy with it later on. You might even surprise your later self with how clever Past You was!

I'll give an example: when I reread short stories and blog posts I wrote a couple months ago, I'm always stunned by how good some are. Whether it's the understated beauty of a Captain America fanfic, or the turn of phrase I used to describe a situation proving to be particularly inspired, it's amazing how satisfied I am with my own work once I manage to gain some perspective with time.

I think we tend to expect 100% in the moment, searching for the perfect syntax in every single line. The problem is, 75% acceptable (the "good enough" line, in my mind) is often 100% acceptable outside of the deeply stressful immediate situation.

Be more acutely aware of when the diminishing marginal return thresholds gets inefficient, and pull back. Or, in layman's terms: stop when it's "good enough" -- you can edit later.

2. Life is a series of Iron Triangles.

I remember taking an Operations Management class back in university that introduced the idea of the iron triangle to me. In brief: in production, you can control Cost of Production, Quality of the Product, and Time to Produce. However, you can't optimize for all three at once; you only get two.


Real Life is pretty crummy; you always only get two. I know for me, my triangle was: Work, Gym, Leisure Time (Friends, Crafts projects, Blogging). Some days it was Work, Social Life, Sleep. Some weeks it was Work, Work, Gym. Either way, the tradeoff game is in full force. If I wanted to be able to pay rent as well as be fit, I just didn't have time for Leisure activities. I remember I went weeks without seeing friends before I realized what was happening. I also remember not working out at all in the week leading up to a Big Bang deadline.

Still, one of the things that I remember being crazy hard to adjust to was work literally taking up half or more of my waking hours. That freedom I had for four years, through university, was gone. No longer did homework and class total less than half my waking hours, with the rest devoted to personal pursuits -- or, even more lamentably, no longer could I enjoy weekly 3-day weekends; while Real Life really doesn’t have homework, there’s always a to-do list, one that never seems to shrink properly, and 3-day weekends are a pipedream at best.

It’s also an attitude shift; I know I’ve blogged about this before, but New York is a city that’ll make introverts of even the most extroverted people. There’s simply too much going on all the time, and too many people forced to vie for the same air and space and resources. At least, on my university campus, that was not the case; Indiana is a sprawling, spacious campus in the countryside. Environmental factors change your triangle’s composition by changing your incentives; if you find yourself less and less able to deal with other people in your free time, you’re less likely to choose that corner of the triangle as a non-negotiable.

If you want a better work/life balance, you’re going to have to draw out your triangle (or pentagon or whatever crazy shape/graph you pick) and ask yourself what’s non-negotiable, and where is the trade-off line. For me, I gave myself 3 days a week to pick "leisure" over "gym" -- whether that was drinks or knitting-and-movie nights, or simply sleeping early. Visualizing my waking hours this way helped me better understand where my time was going and why. It also helped me identify where my motivations fell and if that was something I was ok with.

3. Say ‘yes’ smarter.

I remember being an overextended undergrad and having various mentors and student leaders warn me against saying no too infrequently. At the same time, I remember my professors and mentors urging me to find/make opportunities that I should say YES to. Sometimes these are obvious moments (your Fearless Leader asks you directly to step up and into a role you’re confident you’re ready for) but other times….not so much. Timing really is everything, I’ve learned: from asking for a raise to asking for a date, timing makes a huge difference in the outcome.

Saying yes smarter means not always saying yes but not always saying no either. It means letting your default response be the improviser’s standard, "Yes, and...." but also recognizing that a negative response isn’t the end of the world. I know that the moments in my life I regretted most were the ones where I said NO too soon. I should have said yes more often, and allowed myself to explore and adventure and grow. And, by contrast, saying YES even when the situation was vaguely terrifying led to some really amazing opportunities for me: I moved to New York, I became a Community Manager, I got WinterBash, I delivered a speech to a room of a thousand female engineers in India.

A good friend of mine once told me, "Anything that scares you is worth doing." Which leads into my next point:

4. Bravery is its own reward.

I lost sight of this somewhere between college and Real Life, but it’s a life lesson that’s reared its ugly head repeatedly, which probably means I need to shut up and pay attention.

Bravery comes in a lot of different forms, whether it’s the aforementioned asking for a raise, asking for a date, or even simply asking for respect. Bravery means doing the right thing even when it’s hard -- especially when it’s hard! -- because it’s the right thing to do. Bravery means speaking your mind even when it’s costly, either because of the fallout from what you have to say or because you’re naturally shy. Bravery means taking a hard look at yourself and seeing the flaws but also seeing the gifts. Bravery means recognizing weakness and strength in both yourself and others.

Bravery means walking into the unknown and not losing sight of your purpose. It’s willingly stepping off the edge of the (metaphorical) cliff and trusting the landing won’t be an onomatopoeia bubble from a comic book.

Why is bravery important? Lots of reasons. Beyond the usual "fortune favors the bold" platitudes, bravery means living life on your terms. Without regrets. I’ve mentioned elsewhere that I can see major changes in my life coming my way. It’s put a lot of things in perspective for me, not the least of which being: regret is useless. I’d rather have closure -- or at least exposure, especially of the truth -- rather than regret. I’d rather be blunt and plainspoken and straightforward, because playing games and avoidance never did me any favors in the past. I’d rather take a leap than allow myself to drown in apathy.

Regret does no one any good. Life is for living, and being brave makes that possible. Sure, taking the risks means the immediate pain is sharper and more intense, but it passes so much faster.

So many people have no capacity to be brave, because to be so means truly owning who you are and what you have to offer. I think a lot of us are scared, and that’s ok! Fear is natural and important. But fear can’t be the driving force of your life. You have to make decisions, you have to walk the path you choose for yourself. Why fill that path with "What if" questions? Fill it with "I did" statements, instead.

Finally: when you’re brave, you have nothing to apologize for when so-called "haters" come at you. There is no shame in living life on your terms.

5. Always trust your instincts.

If you’ve never been led astray by your (metaphorical or literal) gut before, don’t stop listening to it when things get tough. Intuition goes a long way, and the human mind is an amazingly complex instrument. If your instincts are saying XYZ but all your advisors are saying P, Q, or R, listen closely to your instincts. It’s possible you’re seeing more than you consciously realize: body language, silenced conversations, expressions on peoples’ faces, gestures.

I spent months second-guessing all of my instincts at every turn, and with 20/20 hindsight I saw that I’d missed opportunities by not trusting myself. My insecurities manifested in a deep mistrust of the very things that had gotten me so far. I should have been braver (hence the former point) and silenced the rationalizing voice in my head; everything can look logical if one wants it to.

However, I’d like to expand this point to include a corollary: If the unanimous response is X, don’t keep insisting on Y. I’ll give an example: if the unanimous response to your description of your job is, "Wow, that sounds horrible," you can’t keep insisting it’s an amazing job unless you start changing how you talk about it. Either it really is a horrible job (and you’re deluding yourself, which is 100% possible) or you’re talking about it badly. I’ve seen both and the short version is: chances are the unanimous response has the right of it.

If you have friends you feel like you can actually trust and rely on, listen to them. Your friends care about you, and just because ANY human relationship is more layered than simple observation can detect doesn’t mean their opinions are invalid. If they all say your Significant Other is uncouth, it might be time to reconsider their behavior when you’re not around or paying attention.

Unanimous opinions are, in my experience, completely correct. Chances are you’re missing something glaringly obvious for one reason or another: willful blindness, you’re too close to the situation, lack of opportunity to see it, or perhaps you’re being straight-up gaslit. Either way, a unanimous opinion carries far more weight than any other; after all, if these are trustworthy friends, they shouldn’t all respond the same without good reason.

Takeaways

I mentioned earlier that I’ve written this entry over and over. I think the most important part is the last point, which has stayed pretty static through revisions. Trusting my instincts is the single thing I wish I could tell my one-year-ago self. Certainly I wish someone besides experience had told me that instead of the gamut of advice I did receive. Not all the advice was useless, though most of it was well-intentioned, but the one thing I needed to hear wasn’t ever said.

Then again, knowing how to ask the right question is an art unto itself. I mentioned earlier: hindsight is 20/20. You don’t know what you don’t know until you know.

Since this list did keep changing, it’s possible (read: likely) there will be a follow-up post with more lessons learned.

September 11, 2013

AOBM Is Back!

My leak has been resolved and things have restabilized. With that, AOBM is back online fully!

September 4, 2013

AOBM is Temporarily Blacked Out

I recently learned some personally identifying information of mine has been compromised. I am taking down AOBM as a stop-gap temporary measure in order to assess the damage. Please stand by for further updates.


July 30, 2013

The Art of Writing

I couldn't get the post that was meant for today ready in time -- hopefully it'll be ready by Thursday. In the interim, I wanted to make a short post that asks myself a question that I've been ruminating over for a while.

Why do I write? I write essays and stories, I write blog posts and emails and letters and notes from the interviews I conduct. I compose tweets and text messages and I journal fervently in a notebook on my nightstand. I've put my feelings into words since I was about eleven, when I realized that I could very viscerally describe the sensation of being on the mountaintops of the Swiss Alps. I've journaled seriously since I was 14, and it has been good writing since I was 16, almost 8 years now.

I write because it's release, because it's the only way I know to take a step back from all the confusing emotions and put myself in order. I write because it gives me distance and clarity that simply talking out my problems doesn't offer. Not to say that conversation doesn't help; a lot of times, blog posts are inspired by conversations I've had with friends and colleagues. I write because I want to capture the bright essence of people on paper, to put into something more permanent than my shoddy memory the lilt of their voice as they teased me or the bright flash of white teeth as he smiled crookedly, a genuine smile, at me, a smile he shared with me alone. I write because ruthlessly examining tough situations by working through others' motivations for their actions is soothing and helpful to me. Writing lets me pour out my heart onto a page, where the text won't judge me by its mere existence. I write because understanding other people starts with understanding myself.

I write because stories matter. And, to paraphrase what Neil Gaiman has said, stories that matter end. I write because when the chapter closes, when this phase of the interconnected short stories that make up a life is over, I want to see the connections from place to place. I want to trace my character's growth and development, watch her make important decisions and follow through with them, or fail and learn from her fall.

I love stories, I love that stories are ultimately about change, and how scary and uncontrollable it is, and powerless we feel in the face of change. I write because watching a relationship fall apart -- friendship, romantic, what-if, what-could-have-been -- or grow into something new -- a marriage, a connection, a new friend, a new partnership -- is amazing and beautiful even when it's painful and sad.

I write because the things I love in communities are reflected in the largest and smallest of moments of the human condition, and I write because I want to remind myself of the beauty and the pain, of the risk and the reward.

....And, if I'm being wholly honest: I write because I'm good at it, one of the few things I never doubted I could do. I can carry a tune beautifully, and I can write prose that breaks your heart in 1000 words or less -- a lot less, if I let my ego speak for me. I've broken hearts in a single sentence.

I write because feelings are universal, and realizing that we aren't alone in our depth of feeling or experience is extraordinarily powerful.

July 25, 2013

Equivalent Exchange

I've noticed over time that I have a fairly unique ability relative to others in my various and sundry roles. I find that, if I'm put in a people-facing position, (regardless of if it's public or internal, support or leadership) then the people I interact with demonstrate a loyalty to me personally.

The first few times it happened, it wasn't something I'd orchestrated. It just...happened. I chalked it up to my excellent leadership skills and my willingness to be available and supportive of my subordinates' projects. But then it happened again. And again. As my choral director said: once is luck, twice is practice, three times is mastery.

Case Study: Gary D'Addario


I read David Simon's Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, which follows the Baltimore Police Department's homicide unit as they solve (or don't solve) murders over the course of a year. In the course of the narrative, we learn a bit more about Lieutenant Gary D'Addario, one of the shift commanders who inspires a great deal of direct loyalty in his detectives:

As a supervisor, Gary D'Addario is generally regarded by his sergeants and detectives as a prince, a benevolent autocrat who asks only competence and loyalty. In return, he provides his shift with unstinting support and sanctuary from the worst whims and fancies of the command staff. [...]

Soft-spoken and introspective, D'addario was a rare breed of supervisor for a paramilitary organization. He had learned long ago to suppress the first impulse of command that calls for a supervisor to intimidate his men, charting their every movement and riding them through investigations. In the districts, that sort of behavior usually resulted from a new supervisor's primitive conclusion that the best way to avoid being perceived as weak was to behave like a petty tyrant. [...] Supervisors like that either grew into their jobs or their best men ducked and covered long enough to transfer to another sector.

Up in homicide, an authoritarian shift commander is even more likely to be held in contempt by his detectives -- men who would not, in fact, be on the sixth floor of headquarters if they weren't eighteen of the most self-motivated cops in the department. In homicide, the laws of natural selection apply: A cop who puts down enough cases stays, a cop who doesn't is gone. Given that basic truth, there isn't much respect for the notion that a cop shrewd enough to maneuver his way into homicide and then put together forty of fifty cases somehow needs to have a shift commander's finger in his eye. Rank, of course, has its privileges, but a homicide supervisor who exercises his divine right to chew ass on every conceivable occasion will in the end create a shift of alienated sergeants and overly cautious detectives, unwilling or incapable of acting on their own instincts.

Instead, and at some cost to his own career, Gary D'Addario gave his men room to maneuver, providing a buffer against the captain and those above him in the chain of command. His method carried considerable risk, and the relationship between D'Addario and his captain had frayed around the edges during the last four years. By contrast, Bob Stanton, the other shift lieutenant, was a supervisor more to the captain's liking. A buttoned-down veteran of the narcotics unit handpicked by the captain to command the second shift, Stanton ran a tighter ship, with sergeants exerting more overt control over their men and detectives pressured to hold down the overtime and court pay that lubricates the entire system. Stanton was a good lieutenant and a sharp cop, but when compared with the alternative, his frugality and by-the-book style were such that more than a few veterans on his shift expressed an eagerness to join D'Addario's crusade at the first opportunity.

For the sergeants and detectives blessed by D'addario's benevolence, the quid pro quo was both simple and obvious. The had to solve murders. The had to solve enough murders to produce a clearance rate that would vindicate His Eminence and his methods and thereby justify his benign and glorious rule. (Simon, 39-41).

It's interesting to me, because D'Addario exhibits a lot of the traits I thought were why my first team was loyal to me: he demonstrates a clear loyalty to his crew, he treats them with respect, and (we see later) he's honest about why he is asking his team to take on mundane/ridiculous tasks. He doesn't impose these restrictions on his team for longer than necessary, and he is appreciative when his team follows through with his requests and commands as passed down from the upper brass. Beyond that: he recognizes the skill and talent of the crew working with him and, knowing his interference would be a hindrance, chooses to step back and allow the detectives to do their job.

Put another way, D'Addario is cultivating loyalty in his colleagues by:
  • Being loyal to his team even before they are asked to do anything.
  • Treating his subordinates as equals.
  • Being upfront about why the team has to do something in a specific way that isn't preferred.
  • Abstaining from unpalatable requests when possible.
  • Expressing gratitude to his subordinates for their work and effort.
  • Working with their talents and skills.
  • Recognizing his role is to be a buffer and an intermediary, not to micromanage.

From what I have come to understand over time, this is almost exactly what management of a high-performing team -- development, support/community managers, design, sysadmin, etc. -- should look like. Teams like these are (assuming you've been doing your hiring correctly) filled with A-player types, who work hard and well with little direction, exhibit a significant degree of self-direction, are self-motivated, instinctively understand what the next move is, and are skilled enough to follow through with given tasks/projects. They tend to be autonomous, not requiring a lot of direct management save for resolving disputes or clarifying objectives.

This means that your role as a manager is to basically get out of their way and make sure other people do, too. But, as a manager, you want this team to trust you and, by extension, be loyal to you. Frankly: exhibiting good management is the first way to build this loyalty. Doing this in a way that gets back to the team you manage without you having to be like LOOK LOOK I DID A THING is a good idea but not necessary.

One of the other points that sticks out at me from the quoted section above is how, in being the right kind of manager for his team, D'Addario has had to take on a significant amount of risk. While I don't think his behavior would be risky in most organizations, and certainly not in tech, I do think that the fact of him putting himself at risk for his team was meaningful. As the quote says, D'Addario and his team had an understanding: he would put himself in the line of fire and his team had to rise to the challenge of solving cases. A good manager is both Captain Kirk and Ensign Ricky in the same breath.

Of course, putting oneself at risk doesn't always mean risking your job / career / personal security / preferences for red shirts. Sometimes it just means being willing to express vulnerability and admitting when you're out of your depth. I firmly believe that people are more likely to trust you if you demonstrate trust in them first. I'm not saying you should fork over your SSN and your mother's maiden name upon first meeting someone. However, when you need someone (or lots of someones) to trust you fast, the most meaningful gesture is to share something of yourself first, whether it's your lack of total knowledge about something, a personal anecdote or seven, or simply putting yourself in an image of vulnerability. Something as simple as wearing your heart on your sleeve (or at least projecting that image) can be viewed as a sort of bravery and endear you to people.

Other Techniques


Other things that have worked for me:

  • Staying honest. -- One thing I've noticed is that people are more likely to do what you need them to when you explicitly tell them why. If you can't tell them why, say that you'll explain when you can but for the time being it's imperative they do XYZ. While I first saw this on The West Wing, actual application in Real Life has proven Aaron Sorkin right.

  • Be considerate. -- It's amazing how many people simply just aren't considerate. It doesn't have to be anything arduous, but the occasional considerate gesture makes a difference, whether it's offering to take someone's dishes back to the kitchen or buying the next round. It's often the smallest things (or the things done quietly) that stick out to me. I had a friend pay for a night of drunken revelry while we all weren't looking, then shrug it off. I still remember that, even almost a year has passed.

  • Offer validation. -- This is something I've seen consistently ruin a person's experience, especially while they're being onboarded. Make clear your team's work is welcome and appreciated. Give them good feedback and emphasizing what they did right. (Critical feedback is part of a different discussion.) Each individual should be made to feel like s/he is an integral part of the team; a part of that is making clear his/her work is important and appreciated.

  • Thank your team. -- Anytime someone does something for you, especially at your behest, thank them. If a person goes above and beyond and makes your job easier, thank them. If someone covers a situation so you can focus on a specific task, thank them. Encourage your team to not take each others' work for granted, either. It's amazing how much a little appreciation is appreciated.

  • Acknowledge your errors. -- Occasionally, when I apologize to someone, they'll try to brush off the situation with a simple, "It's okay." When it matters (or, rather, when the incident clearly mattered to them) I'll usually respond with, "No, it's not okay, but I appreciate that. You shouldn't have had to deal with that, and I'm sorry you did. It won't happen again." Admitting you were wrong, and that you intend to learn from your error is the best thing to do in a situation, and refusing to take an easy out demonstrates character.

Caveats


I think, though, that I'd be remiss if I didn't talk about the other side of building this kind of loyalty.

It won't work every time. -- Some people just won't like you, some people have been hurt too badly to ever trust again (yes, dramatic) and some people just don't want that kind of relationship with you. Understand that it's not a reflection of yourself, but rather a reflection of that person's experiences. If you try to win this person over, you're going to end up compromising your role as a manager and effective team lead. Realize when you're pouring a disproportionate amount of effort into getting someone to "like" you. If they do what you need them to, if they respect you, then asking for more is foolish. Quit while you're ahead and focus on more important things.

Sometimes you're not going to be taken seriously. -- It's a risk you run when you demonstrate vulnerability. There's two pieces to this: first, there is a subclass of personality type that will think that ANY demonstration of vulnerability makes you an inherently weak person. Do not let this personality type wear on you, though their dismissal of your worth will be galling. Work with it and around it, which is far easier done than said. With people like this, I find, the bar is already set to "underpromise" -- by delivering at all, you're already over-delivering.

The second piece is a bit more subtle; depending on how you build this trust, your authority might be undermined. People who report to you may see you as a friend and colleague and not a superior. Again, there's ways to work around this. The easiest, I find, is a super simple trick I picked up in university: command with a smile. After a certain point, I don't ask for anything, I mandate. However, because my declarative statements are made with a smile (or at least in a pleasant tone of voice) most people do as I say without complaining. If people aren't seeing you as an authority figure, they won't rebel against literal authoritative action you take, as well. It's a delicate game; overplay this hand and you risk a mutinous team.

Know when to shut up. -- My greatest weakness. At some point, sharing bits of yourself can cross the line from "building trust" to "dear god shut up" because you're oversharing. I've met a TON of women (and it's especially women) who find that their managers tell them way too much about their personal troubles and then act strangely about it later. It's pretty rich coming from me, but I'll be clear: there's a line. Work people don't all magically convert into Real Friends without any drama, and that almost certainly never works up and down the ladder. There's a point where continuing to share yourself just makes people around you uncomfortable.

Ultimately, I've found that personal loyalty is hard to leverage well. However, it's something an organization should watch out for; the more people who are loyal to that individual, and depending to what extent that loyalty goes, it may well be that when that person leaves there will be an exodus, meaning you'll be losing valuable talent. Even if that doesn't come to pass, the loss of a focal point can be a hit to morale, and the ensuing recovery time is productive time lost. Regardless, identifying these centers of loyalty and using them in functional ways (liaison, marketing, management, etc.) will ultimately prove valuable to them and to the enterprise at large.

July 23, 2013

You Borked It, Bro

Note: There’s some “coarse language” later in this entry. Since I value realism over other peoples’ comfort, I opted not to censor this entry. However, I did hide the bulk of the entry under a cut just in case. If your workplace filter is hardcore or whatever, you might want to save this one for later.

I've been thinking about the moments where a person's character shines through most strongly. Life is filled with challenges and moments that ask you to make a difficult choice, one that demonstrates exactly who you are as a person. And sometimes, that choice is whether or not you tell someone that they've dropped the ball in a way that means people are genuinely impacted.

It's seriously an art to be able to tell someone that they've messed up. And by "art," I mean "a carefully considered series of checks and balances" because hey guess what you're probably an at-will employee. So, let's talk about how to tell someone they've messed up, and how to figure out if that's something you should do.

July 16, 2013

The Clothes Make the Woman

I noticed something lately. Well, rather, I noticed it for a friend and suddenly some things started to click for me.

My friend, whom I will call Karen, and I had dinner some time ago when she divulged that she was somewhat frustrated with her job. As a PM, she had recently had a project sour late in its implementation, leaving her in a bit of a bind. She was unhappy with the feedback about the project, but more importantly it sounded (to me) like she was also unhappy with how she felt she was being treated by her teammates. Now, I had only ever praise about her work, but she was frustrated with her immediate superiors. My take on her frustration boiled down to: although her work is good -- is really good -- she didn't feel she was being taken seriously, and as a result was losing out on upward mobility.

I've seen Karen in action. She's direct, tactful, and all business. Her work is top-notch, her writing skills are exemplary, and I think of her as a consummate professional. Karen is also really beautiful in a traditionally feminine way, with a heart-shaped face and wide-spaced eyes and a softer voice. Her hair is always coiffured well, and her makeup is done without being overwhelming. She also wears dresses and skirts, all strikingly feminine: ruffles, lace, floral prints, etc. In fact, the night we had dinner, she had just come from work: blue watercolor sheath dress with an A-line skirt, tasteful necklace, cardigan, and hair curled. Having spent time with her personally, I knew this was her personal style adapted to a professional environment.

Girls in White Dresses with Blue Satin Sashes

I had another friend, in university, whom I will call Mary. I never worked with Mary directly, but I saw her around school. She was always dressed a touch severely: black or navy pantsuits with simple shirts or blouses, matte neutral makeup, conservative heels, and her hair neatly parted and tied back. Even her manicure was minimal -- usually just French tips if that. Mary was also incredibly smart and confident. Her soft voice and large eyes were expressive, and she was always heard even though she rarely raised her voice save for presentations.

Yet, the one time I saw Mary in a casual social setting, I was completely taken aback. She wore a beautiful floral print sundress, jeweled gladiator sandals, and her hair was long and wavy around her shoulders. I think she was even wearing pearls! The contrast was intense, and I remember complimenting her appearance. She had smiled and said that this was more her style, but she "just knew" that it wasn't appropriate for the b-school.

At the time, I had thought that Mary just meant that her look was overdone for the business world, but as I got older I realized what she really meant: she was too pretty to be taken seriously in her usual attire. She had to look a little more severe in order to be heard for her intelligence and not her aesthetics.

So when Karen asked me if I had any suggestions, I winced and said, "I think you need to dress more masculinely." Her immediate, negative reaction was expected. But I had to point out to her that she's conventionally beautiful, and that means that people are seeing the pretty and not her intellect. My immediate suggestion was to switch to pants, but she balked. So instead I suggested she pull masculine articles into her usual wardrobe: shirtdresses, solid colored blouses, pleat-front shirts (i.e. tuxedo shirts) with cufflinks, masculine prints like stripes, less jewelry, and so on. No more lace, no more ruffles, and no more florals -- or rather, no more of those at work.

I think she found it a little counterintuitive: in order to be taken more seriously, she had to "unpretty" herself a little. But a number of conventionally attractive women I know have had to do this, and I hope it works for Karen. If I'm being honest: I'm pretty sure it will. Presentation matters, and people often take the liberty of categorizing you by your clothes. And, of course, I daresay this happens to women more than men. Then again, there's a hell of a lot more variety to women's clothing than men's.

"You're too intense."

Fairly recently, I've received an interesting bit of feedback from people that I respect and trust which just leaves me confused and angry in turn. The first time I was told this was about eight months ago, by a well-meaning friend who I will call Jane. She and I were chatting over beers and I was complaining about something when she suggested that the root of my problem was that I'm too intense. While the rest of that conversation is, ah, fuzzy, that line stuck with me, and I remember mulling it over at length. Later conversations with my other confidants as well as my mentor offered no real illumination beyond suggesting the comment was a reaction to my intense extroversion coupled with my intelligence. After all, most "loud" people are perceived as a bit (or a lot) shallow. Being outgoing and "deep" can be off-putting.

So I tried toning it down a bit, and in doing so allowed myself to feel increasingly isolated and distant from those around me. I didn't like that feeling of being alone constantly. As an extrovert, my preferred state is to be around people. I enjoy the company of others, even passively. (In fact, I write most of these blog posts in coffee shops, surrounded by people I don't interact with.) However, my greatest fear is being a burden to those around me. I never want the people I spend time around to resent my presence. I could never figure out the line with my colleagues; I figured if they wanted my presence, they would seek me out. I forgot that most introverts don't work that way.

Anyway, the second time I was told this was earlier this summer, at the end of just a really terrible day. In contrast to Jane, Zach is (a) male, (b) more extroverted than I am, and (c) not talking to me over beers. Zach's commentary was almost word for word what Jane said. While Zach's motivations for telling me this are somewhat suspect, the fact that his commentary matched Jane's almost exactly meant I had to shut up and really take a hard look at myself and my behaviors in order to figure out what exactly was "too intense" about them.

Allow me to take a moment for an aside here: I really hate that word, "intense." It means about as much as "interesting" in an academic essay -- it doesn't mean anything at all. Intense is a stand-in word for something else entirely, and I suspect that the behaviors that would fall under that label (intellect, vocal, opinionated, direct and straightforward, critical, sarcastic, ambitious, persistent, takes ownership) would not be taken negatively if I were a man.

That suspicion -- that if I were a man, I would never be called "too intense" for my current behaviors -- should have been my first clue.

Fast forward: when I got home from spending time with Karen, I opened my own closet and took out all the clothes I still fit into and laid them out, and realized that the wardrobe I had described to her was my own. I tend towards solids and masculine pieces: blouses with pleats and minimal ruching, button-downs cut in the Oxford style, and I often complete my outfits with Chucks. I wear my hair tied back and rarely bother with makeup or jewelry. For a long time, I'd stuck to slacks and pants, and I often topped dresses with a blazer. My own personal style values comfort and simplicity -- few frills, not many patterns, structure, and clean lines. Paired with my natural personality, I was both presenting and owning a strongly masculine image, one at odds with the expectations of my gender. Hilariously, being tall probably did/does not help.

I considered how I was treated when I bothered to go "full femme," as I call it -- makeup, heels, hair, dress, the entire thing -- and realized that I was taken more seriously in the ways that mattered. Some of this is also body politics; when I was heavier, my personality was more acceptable because of my weight. As I've slimmed down and approached socially expected norms of what a woman "should" look like, I've lost that protection.

Anyway, it was in surveying my wardrobe that I realized: I had to dress more femininely in order to offset my stature and my outspoken nature. By presenting a more feminine image, I would take the edge off of my message (that is, the aggressive edge that I was unconsciously projecting in my dress and manner) and thus make criticism and my suggestions for change more palatable. My ideas would be better heard for their own merit. Nothing sucks more than knowing your point is being brushed aside just because it's yours.

Presentation Matters: Balancing Gendered Projection

If you're a self-professed girly-girl and sharp, but you find yourself: not being taken seriously, even though you know your work is awesome; or, if you're being told to be more aggressive even though you're speaking up at all the right times; or, if people are doubting your commitment despite you working longer and harder than your colleagues, try altering your wardrobe to be more masculine. This means:

  • More solid colors. -- Stick to jewel tones, darks, and neutrals. Burgundy? Awesome. Pastels? Keep away. White, cream, and champagne are also acceptable. Avoid Easter or baby hues -- you're inadvertently infantilizing yourself. Strong, bold colors are your ally in this.
  • Minimal patterns. -- Cycle through the men's department sometime for a sense of what patterns are commonly attributed to men. Usually these will be stripes, geometric prints (i.e. checkered patterns or tweeds), and the occasional dot pattern. Stick to these, especially pinstripes, which are more varied and more likely to flatter multiple figures.
  • Keep the lines clean. -- A-line skirts, fitted slacks, blazers on top of dresses and blouses. No cardigans! Avoid ruffles and lace, but feel free to include pleats and tucks. Experiment with different types of collars if you feel a need to add a personal touch to your wardrobe. To a degree, you want to emulate the "lined" shape men have -- men's clothes gives them to a triangular or rectangular body shape. For women who want to mimic this, you're aiming for two triangles: shoulders (base) to waist (tip), then waist (tip) to either hips, knees, or feet, depending on the occasion. More femme clothes tend to round out these shapes' edges; your aim is to minimize that "rounding" as much as possible. Structured clothes like suit pieces will help tremendously.
  • Cover up. -- This is sexist as hell, but try to keep everything covered. Skirts should always hit at the knee, aim for blouses with longer, fitted sleeves, and necklines that really only reveal collarbones, if that. Again, I know this is sexist, but remember you're emulating male styling; with traditional masculine wear, you're lucky if you see their Adam's apples, let alone the hollow of their throat.
  • Easy on the bling. -- One ring on each hand, max, and no ring if you're wearing a watch on that wrist. Stud earrings, pearls or a simple necklace, and nothing "jingly". Statement necklaces and earrings stay home.
  • Pull your hair back. -- Buns, low ponytails, chignons, and twists are your best bets here. Here, using a fancier clip is ok; I've seen ponytails clipped with a jeweled clasp, for example. No stray curls framing your face, no loose strands on your shoulders, and try to keep the coiffure sleek. Keep everything back and out of your face so that people pay attention to what you're saying.
  • Matte makeup. -- No shimmer, light eyeliner, natural nails. French tips or a buff/neutral polish are best, if you must mani-pedi. For lipstick: I go back and forth. The simple red lips look forces people to watch your mouth, which usually translates to listening. On the other hand, men don't wear lipstick, so sticking to a neutral shade could be better. Go with whatever you're comfortable with. Also, remember: eyes OR lips, never both!
  • Sensible shoes. -- The phrase that is the bane of women everywhere: sensible shoes. To me, this means closed-toed, medium height heels/pumps. Depending on where you work, this could be the Chucks/Keds I love to wear with my slacks.

Protip: use Janelle MonĂ¡e as your style inspiration! She's pretty great and uses masculine pieces with femme touches in a seriously awesome, powerful way. Plus she's super talented.


If you're tomboyish and sensitive but: you find yourself being told you're too aggressive or "intense," even though you spend more time listening; people find you overwhelming no matter how much you try to remain self-contained; the same ideas / changes / criticisms from other colleagues hold more water than from you, try altering your wardrobe to be more feminine. This means:

  • Add more textures. -- Lace, ruching, ruffles, satin, and knitwork can add a softening touch to your wardrobe. Knits, especially, will round out shoulders and curves, but only up to a point. Too much cabling or too "chunky" a knit can swing back towards that masculine edge. Keep an eye on shoulder shaping when it comes to knitted sweaters and tops. For lace and ruffles, you want these elements to be "statement" -- ruffles should be the single eye-catching element of the piece, for example. The lace should draw attention and soften features. Lace on shoulders or arms is great; ruffles on the front (especially asymmetrical or diagonal ruffles) add interest without overwhelming you or making you look overdone. Ruching is my favorite. It adds visual interest and can be slimming / shaping without you feeling like you've been stuffed into sausage casing. Satin, by nature of being SHINY, should be used sparingly; only ONE article of clothing should be satiny in any given outfit.
  • Go printed. -- Prints! Prints add instant femininity without you having to change the cuts of clothes that are most flattering for you. A-line dresses make your figure less heavy? Great! Buy that dress in a cute polka-dot print instead of a more severe black and white or colorblock. Lean towards florals, dots, and other uncommon prints; I saw a blouse in a butterfly print recently that just blew me away, and postcard prints are gaining popularity of late. Avoid stripes, colorblock, and plaids. Checkers can go either way; gingham is pretty feminine, but it also doesn't work for everyone.
  • Wear your hair down. -- If you have medium to long hair, stop tying it back! I am super guilty of this; I wear my hair tied back a lot because it's just convenient, I'm lazy, and my hair is really thick, so it get uncomfortably warm if I wear it down all the time. But the thing is, wearing it down (or even half-down) can soften your features considerably. For a lot of women, loosened hair also looks younger, which you can use to your advantage.
  • Do your makeup. -- A little eyeliner/mascara and lipstick go a long way. Use YouTube to learn how to better / more effectively apply eyeliner and shadow, and see how you can use cosmetics to give yourself a look that's comfortable for you. Wing-tip eyeliner, a touch of white shadow at the tear duct, and careful use of false eyelashes, for example, can make your eyes look larger and more widely-spaced, a "look" that can be interpreted to your advantage. I'll pass on a tip someone gave me: even if you hate makeup, learn how to use it. Makeup, especially for women, can be an armor. You can't let yourself cry if you're wearing cosmetics.
  • Accessories make the outfit. -- Statement necklaces, chandelier earrings, a good manicure, these are the pieces that can give a softening touch to an otherwise "edged" outfit. The key here is sparkle -- deliberately picking shiny (as opposed to matte or metal) jewelry will give your outfit more color and flexibility. Jewelry is also a relatively inexpensive way to "femme" up an otherwise minimalist wardrobe without having to spend a lot of money. Also, try scarves (ascots! in butterfly prints!), headbands (especially ones with prints and/or bows), and replacing blazers with cardigans. Somewhat counter-intuitively, removing structure can soften your edges without sacrificing a more "professional" look.

For this look, your style inspiration should probably be Zooey Deschanel, whose "twee" style counterbalances her massive success as an artist, actor, and businessperson. She's clearly using her cute aesthetic to allow people to draw their own conclusions about who/what she is. (More succinctly: despite her relative power and role as a boss, no one's ever called her a "bitch," which is more than I can say for myself.)


Style Alone is Not the Answer

I should absolutely warn you: style alone will not solve all of your image issues. However, changing your physical presentation can have an impact on how people take your actions. I'm not going to pretend it's not sexist; it's TOTALLY sexist! Are you kidding?! But part of Real Adulthood, I've found, is knowing how to leverage the game against itself.

The most important part of revamping your style is to make sure parts of yourself continue to endure; stick to cuts that are flattering for you, and color palettes that complement your skin tone. Don't compromise your own styling because of your career ambitions. If you enjoy color, wear colors! Just stick to solids under blazers if you're going for a more masculine look.

Cutting out your personality in your wardrobe is not what I'm advocating; what I'm saying is, look at where you are and where you want to be, and ask yourself if your personal presentation makes that statement for you. If it isn't, find a way to bridge that gap.

A number of trusted mentors have pointed out that this isn't the ONLY solution to this issue. Managing your demeanor, and how that comes across to people of different sensitivities and personality types is also a big part of your personal success. A post about this approach (called "emotional intelligence") is forthcoming.

Arguably, however, altering your wardrobe is far easier in the short-run. It's a good stop-gap solution while you self-evaluate and work on the far more valuable (and difficult) skill of building your EQ.

July 11, 2013

Aarthi Doesn't Work There Anymore

I’ve probably written this entry five times over the last eight weeks. For some reason, I never could quite find the right words to talk about it. Each version seemed to highlight all the wrong things or make me sound like I felt differently than I do.

But at this point, it’s a little awkward for me to not have this entry anywhere. Plus, I keep being asked The Question, the one I keep dodging. Time to man up, I guess. Settle in, 'cause this is a long one.

Guys: I don’t work at Stack Exchange anymore. I haven’t since 7 May 2013.

July 2, 2013

Hello, This is Dog

Listen, I'm a realist. I know I'm not that great at lots of things. I'm kind of clumsy, I really love cookies, and I have no idea where Rhode Island is. But if there's just one thing I'm absolutely, incredibly, incontrovertibly awesome at, it's phone interviews.


Not to explanabrag too much, but I'm pretty bomb at phone interviews. A 30-minute timeslot almost always runs to 40-45 minutes with me, I make the interviewer laugh, and we usually end up sharing great stories about the job and/or our own experiences. I've very rarely gotten a first-round phone interview and not been bumped up to the next round. I think I did the math once, and my "hit rate" is in the ballpark of 85%.

However, I know a lot of people (especially dudes -- guys, I'm here for you) have lots of trouble with phone interview. Here are five tips to make every phone interview a million percent better.

Phone interview Confidential


Turn off all the distractions.

I know you feel you're at your best when you have Trans-Siberian Orchestra blasting along in the background, but this is not the time. Turn off your music, close out all the programs on your laptop (yes, even if you're on a Mac) and sign out of any chat clients you have open in the background.


The only things you want open on your laptop are: your resume, the job posting, and any emails you've exchanged with the recruiter. You may even wish to have a paper copy of your resume at hand instead.

Minimizing distractions means you will be able to focus all of your attention and energy into the call. Respect the other person; there's six other things they could be doing at that exact second rather than talking to you.Make talking to you worthwhile by respecting their time and giving them 100% of your attention.

As an addendum, keep a tidy/empty desk area as well. No fiddly things to mess with during the interview (a stress ball is ok, a racquetball is not) save for a pad of paper and a pen or two. I often fiddle with a non-clicky pen while in interviews, and I take pretty extensive notes during the conversation. These notes are usually what ends up informing my thank-you note following the call, and they force me to keep my focus on the call..

Use a headset.

Recently, I started going hands-free during phone interviews and it's basically been the best choice I ever made. The primary reason for this is that I feel more comfortable physically during the interview. When I still had my old phone, a seriously old-school flip phone, being on the phone for an extended period of time wasn't arduous. However, now that I'm on a smartphone just like everyone else, I find the phone size and weight cumbersome to hold in my hand for 30-40 minutes.

Going hands free solved a lot of problems. My face no longer got hot from an electronic device being pressed against it. No awkward shoulder fumbling to write and listen and keep the phone at my ear. No possibility of dropping the phone like the klutz I am. No struggling to hear the person (I use an earbud-style headset) even with the volume up as high as it will go. No worries about echoing or the mic picking up on background noise it shouldn't. Lots of my own problems were quickly solved by going hands-free. I can't urge people to do this enough -- it takes all of the pain out of this process and costs you less than $10, if that. Plus you can keep using it beyond phone interviews; I've had my headset for years. It doubles as headphones for when I go running.


Keep water handy.

This might seem like a no-brainer but the handful of times I've forgotten a glass of water while I was interviewing have always proven to be the worst times ever. Keep a glass of cool (but not ice-cold) water handy. You'll want it between questions to sip. Shockingly, speaking for two minutes without interruption can leave you parched. Add to that the fact that you're probably in a high-stress mode and you're likely suffering from dry-mouth. Which is the worst.

I usually keep a glass of water at hand, but far enough away that I won't knock into it while gesticulating. Which brings me to my next point:

Treat this as a "real" interview.

Just because they can't see you doesn't mean you shouldn't play this like it's a legit interview. You can't see them? Big deal. This is this The Big Time. You need to give it 100%. Do all the things you would normally do for an in-person interview -- including gesturing at the wall behind your desk.

Why? Well, it boils down to this: you only have your voice to communicate with in a phone interview. They can't see your expressions, they can't analyze your body language, they can't go by any other indicators as to what you mean except whatever you verbalize at them. But what I find is that people aren't able to emote with their voices alone. We just aren't wired that way as humans. It's why the best voice actors will pantomime scenes in the recording booth, and it's why you should gesture and make all the expressions and just generally be yourself while talking. Your passion, your enthusiasm, and (with a little luck) your point will be made. (Plus, good jokes require a wry voice, and it's hard to be wry with a straight face.)

Beyond that, treating this like a real interview means matching your physical state to your mental state. I'll let y'all in on a secret: I never do phone interviews in pajamas. Even if it's just for the hour or so that I'm in/on/thinking about the call, I will always get dressed and put on "going outside of my apartment" clothes. No, you don't have to bust out the suit every time (though, hey, if that suit makes you feel confident and badass and comfortable, go for it) but don't roll out of bed and do the interview.

Ramp up and decompress.

The time before and after the interview are nerve-wracking to the extreme. If your interview is at 2pm, block out the hour from 1-2pm and the half hour after (3pm-3:30pm) for no disturbances. Use the hour prior to prepare fully for your interview:

  • Finish any research you started.
  • Be finished with lunch/meals/drinks by the time this pre-hour is half over.
  • Take care of any bathroom-related activities, including showering.
  • Tidy up your desk and save/close any programs you have open.
  • Pull up your resume.
  • Grab your glass of water.
  • Change clothes.
  • Charge your phone for the hour leading up to the interview. If possible, let it be plugged in while you talk.
  • If you're in an unfamiliar place, call a friend to test the phone signal and call quality, as well as background noise level and how well/poorly you can hear them.
  • Locate, if you have not already, your headset.
  • Quickly pull up your interviewer's profile on LinkedIn.
  • Jot down any notes about the company and/or questions you'd like to ask.

Five minutes before the interview is scheduled to begin, you should have everything completed and be set to waiting. I often play solitaire in the tense moments leading up to an interview; it's just challenging enough to be distracting but not so engaging as to pull me out of my focus.

The hour before is to give yourself a deadline to begin shutting everything else down except the absolute necessary things for your interview. It's about making sure all the pieces are in order so that you can pick up the call without fumbling or frantically looking for something. More importantly, the hour is about tying up outstanding loose ends so that your entire being is focused on the interview and nothing else.

The half hour after is your decompression time. Use this time to take notes about the interview for your thank-you note, as well as to just generally "come down" from the adrenaline rush you'll inevitably be experiencing. Even an interview that goes sour requires this decompression time; you've just survived a high-stress situation and your body is pumped up full of epinephrine. Your every nerve will be firing madly; you're literally a bolt of lighting at that moment. Take some time to regain your composure. Drink more water. Take notes. Sprawl out on the floor if you have to. Whatever you need to do so long as it brings you back to yourself. This also lets you reflect on the interview in the immediate aftermath and lets you analyze how well/poorly it went and why.

In my decompression time, I often drink two glasses of water, lie back at stare at the ceiling for a while, and take quick notes for a thank-you letter. I do this until my hands stop shaking -- my most common physical manifestation of stress.

Other considerations...

There's a few other tips I'd like to share with you:

  1. Avoid dairy products and sodas in the hour prior to the interview. -- This one sounds ridiculous, I know, but trust the classically trained singer, ok? Dairy causes your throat to increase phlegm and mucus production, meaning you'll be ahem-ing all the way through the call. As for carbonated drinks, well. Nothing is more embarrassing than a loud buuuuuurp in the middle of a call.
  2. Keep facial tissues handy. -- If you've got allergies, they'll be a godsend (just warn the interviewer in advance) and if you don't, well. You never know when the dust motes will get you. If you do have to sneeze, remove the mic as FAR from your mouth/nose as possible. Do not sneeze/cough into your interviewer's ear.
  3. Pitch your voice lower. -- I have a big entry about this that I'll write later, but the short version is that pitching your voice a tone or two lower than usual will help your voice carry nicely across. If you've got that Jim Halpert / James Earl Jones voice already, don't alter your pitch. If you're more Chris Rock or Kristin Chenowith, lowering your pitch a tone or two is a good idea. Practice with Skype or with friends.
  4. Do a practice call a few days beforehand. -- If you're unaccustomed to long-ish phonecalls, call someone who is chatty a few days prior. Have a 40-minute conversation with them. Consider it a warm-up. Speaking of....
  5. Sing along to the radio for 10 minutes in the hour before the call. -- Warming up your voice is a guaranteed way to make sure you don't overextend it when you need it. Singing along to the radio (terrestrial or Pandora or otherwise) will help make sure your voice doesn't crack in the middle of an important anecdote. Plus it loosens you up a bit. I may or may not have danced around my apartment singing along to Justin Timberlake in my one hour of prep time.
  6. Smile. -- It sounds like a cliche, but it really does come through when you talk.

I am not going to pretend that these tips will make you the phone interview whisperer the way I am. But they will help a lot. A big part of a phone interview is simply being able to project your personality through telephone wires. That part is a bit more art than skill (though it can be taught) and so is harder to pin down. However, I will say this much: being genuine comes across most strongly, regardless of interview medium or setting. Be honest, be forthcoming, be yourself, and demonstrate preparedness. Together, theose four should yield a pretty nice payoff.

June 27, 2013

25x25: The Picnic

One of the things on my 25 by twenty-five list was going on a picnic in Central Park. As someone who's been living in New York for two years (and for over a year on the island itself) it's basically criminal that I haven't been able to really spend time in or explore Central Park at all. So I made it a goal for myself. And then there were (shockingly) two dry, sunny days in New York in a row, so I packed up my stuff and headed to the park.

It was super nice! I packed a lunch of salad and my liter-sized waterbottle, and headed to the park. My setup was pretty nice:




It was a REALLY beautiful day! There were a number of people out and about enjoying the sun. There was a group of twenty-somethings maybe 20 feet away from me who were kicking around a soccer ball or tossing a frisbee back and forth. Saw a huge gaggle of NYU/Columbia students sunbathing as well.

Mostly, though, it was just nice to sit out in the sun for a few hours. Admittedly, I was kind of lamenting I didn't have sunscreen (yes, I burn, too) but the slight tan was pretty worth it, if you ask me.




I do have this hilarious tanline from my t-shirt though. Aw yeah, farmer's tanlines!

I did have enough foresight to bring a hat, though, in order to prevent the always facepalm-worthy "glasses tan" which is just embarrassing.


Sadly the hat basically promptly fell apart. Ah well, a SE beach day plus some nice times in the sunshine plus my SE photoshoot? WE'LL ALWAYS REMEMBER YOU, HAT. Plus I'd like to buy one that actually fits this time.

Anyway! My picnic was really pleasant. A nice time all around. Only 24 more things to do now. I wonder what will be next....

June 20, 2013

Alas, earwax.

No deep and insightful post today, sorry. I have 3-4 posts in various stages of completion and editing, and this week has been kinda bananas. So, instead, here's a brief rundown of what I'm currently reading:

1. The Emotional Intelligence Quickbook by Travis Bradberry -- I'm reading this at the behest of a good friend. She suggested that part of my issues with presentation and acceptance might have something to do with my lack of emotional intelligence. I'm interested to see what this book has to say and how well/poorly I score on the charts. I know my big blind spot, and I'm curious to see if the book offers advice on how to "fix" that blindness.

2. Who: The A Method for Hiring by Geoff Smart & Randy Street -- Identifying talent is this incredible skill that I want to be able to do better. I was telling someone recently: the work that HR does and the work that support teams do aren't that far removed from one another. Their audiences simply differ. If I can better identify potential and goodness of fit and talent, I can be a better support role and have a broader range of employment options.

4. Community: The Structure of Belonging by Peter Block -- I love communities, I love how powerful they are and how much a community can accomplish. In turn, I love reading about how to bring communities together more effectively, how to distill that essential magic that makes healthy communities tick, and how to find the energy to self-perpetuate a community long after the "old guard" walk away.

That's what currently in my to-read pile in my apartment. Fortunately, they're all fairly quick reads. I just need to sit down and crack them open! Like I said: it's been a hectic week.

June 18, 2013

Executives in the Mailroom

It's funny -- one of my fellow alums and I had a lengthy conversation one evening after an alumni event, and we realized that our business education, while top-notch and excellent all around, had some serious flaws. One of those was how it felt like we were all being groomed to have a seat at the executive table, masters of our fate and excellent at leading and decision-making, and thrust into the world with a sense of our own agency in our jobs. And then, promptly, we were all disabused of that notion, forced to start from the very bottom rung of the corporate ladder and work our way up to the coveted C-suite role we'd been led to believe was where we belonged. Effectively, we were trained to be executives and then immediately put to work in the mailroom. It's frustrating, feeling so little control over your professional development in those crucial first years out of university.

Of course, I took a bit of an alternate route.

One of the best decisions I made after I finished my undergrad was working for a company with less than 50 employees. It was kind of a huge risk for me -- my career trajectory up until that had not included such a move, and even with a long runway the company still didn't feel solid to me, mostly because I was unfamiliar with its products -- but it paid off in spades. If I had to pinpoint three things that made a smaller company the better choice, I'd have to say it was: getting to take on a variety of roles, having more flexibility in what my chosen role could do, and having a real impact.

Lots of Hats

My undergraduate business degree was unique in that the school actively emphasized students understand the entire enterprise before picking a specialized area of study. So, for example, even though I majored in economic consulting, I took rigorous finance, accounting, operations/supply chain, and management courses, as well as learned why these functions are important. Every part of a business has a function, and each function is essential. In the truest sense, a business is an organism.

What this meant was, by the time I graduated, I had a specialized set of skills (my specific major) along with a broad-base understanding to complement it. It also meant I had a top-down look at an organization; I understood what the various pieces were and knew how to put them together, and why they all depended on each other. I expected this knowledge made me super valuable and that my job role would be flexible and fun to match, letting me work on my core competency while also exploring my other interests.

Ha. Ha ha.

Turns out, I had hilariously unrealistic ideas of what "real business" was like. Almost every business major I know finds themselves frustrated when they start out and realize their jobs have a very specific, narrow focus and that they're expected to specialize in this. For example, my friend studied accounting and landed in audit for a large multinational enterprise. And then she learned that her job would be reviewing federal withholding. For the next two years. Suffice to say it was not quite what she expected.

That said, this is also a situation unique to a massive, multinational enterprise, where scale requires intensely narrow specialization. (This is actually a fairly important economic principle -- as a company scales, it must specialize to a greater degree in order to maintain efficiency. There is, of course, an optimum level of specialization. Arguably, most financial services firms are way past this point, but that's an argument best left to people getting their PhD in Economics.) At smaller companies, a lack of pure specialization is actually preferable.

Why is this? Well, frankly, it has to do with distribution of resources. (All my econ and ops management readers can refer to "Cobb-Douglas" now.) At the most basic level: many small companies are running on equity and prayer. A fully specialized team early on is expensive and requires a lot of managerial overhead to ensure all members are functioning. It's way cheaper to pay three people to do 9 bodies' worth of work for like 6 months until you secure Series B or Series C funding, as needed. As a company grows, teams gain specialization -- you hire a dedicated finance guy, a sysadmin, sales people, etc. -- but especially as a team is being established, you'll get to work on tasks that are tangentially connected to what your primary role.

This is great if you're a specialised generalist: you'll get to do two roles' worth of work (if not many many more) while the company gets its sea legs. This is invaluable experience -- you might gain PM experience, for example, without having to permanently wear the PM title. Working for a small company means you'll get to take on job roles that explore your tangential skills. One former colleague of mine, for example, handled HTML bugfixing for special promo landing pages. In no way was that her primary role, but she had HTML and CSS experience and so she did it.

Look, the long and short of it is: the more work you can do, the more valuable you will be at your next company. Beyond that: it widens the array of work you can do in your career overall, and lets you build skills you might not necessarily have had a chance to improve otherwise. If you decide you want to run your own company later on, the myriad roles you hold can better inform what you'll need to do and know as your own enterprise gets off the ground.

Job Role Tetris

One of the things I enjoyed most about working for a smaller company was how much flexibility I had in my role. When I started, I was on a team that was "experimental" and had a lot of power over what I did each day and what strategy I wanted to take in order to achieve the team's goals. (In retrospect, that job role is better-defined, just in a different industry: nonprofit. It's funny; the more I work in tech, the more I realize that what that industry needs is a resource in abundance in nonprofit. I for one would love to see more overlap in tech and nonprofit. But that's a post for another time.) Eventually, when I switched to a different team, my role solidified into something more established, based on precedents.

But even then, I had the opportunity to take on projects that captured my interest and were genuine improvements in some way. One was a fun multi-site promotion that I really enjoyed planning and organizing. I worked on site features, promotions, and even wrote documentation. Even though, on paper, my job was "support specialist," my actual work spanned tasks and assignments that fell into my lap by a combination of luck, planning, and crazy random happenstance. I got to choose what I took on that was considered "outside" of my primary responsibilities, and in doing so got to learn (or, sometimes re-learn) what I could do well. I remembered how much I love mentoring and watching my charges become really good at their work.

Flexibility extended beyond just what I could take on -- several times, I saw colleagues switch to different functional teams. While I myself moved from promotions to community management, other colleagues moved into PR, project management, user experience design, and analytics. I've seen people from the sales pool move into marketing, and I've seen developers shift to management and recruitment as well. Smaller organizations are more able, in my opinion, to help you find a niche still in the company that you fit better. Many times, it's a case of, "We like you but this role isn't right for you [anymore]," and that kind of deep consideration is harder when there's 28,000 of you as opposed to twenty-eight bodies in the office.

High Visibility, High Impact

At some point in the last year, I realized: I want to have a real impact in my work, and I want recognition for it. More importantly, I want the work that I do and the projects I undertake to have real utility. While I loved managing discrete resources across multiple teams, promotions are inherently ephemeral, and the internet is all about short term memory. Although some of my projects have been of lasting impact (some of my work on support resources, for example) I always wanted to be doing things that left a bigger mark on the product.

That said, the fact that I got to have any projects at large-scale is something pretty amazing. Within two years of joining the company, I was planning and managing a large product-wide event? I became the de facto contact for all site promotion work? That's pretty impressive, and wouldn't have happened in a larger organization, where I'd likely still be working up from permit acquisition to initial client consultation or something equally mundane.

If you want to be doing Big Things, things that have a real impact on team efficiency or even the company at large, you're way less likely to be able to make a splash in a larger organization. The metaphor I use is: the company pool is a finite size. It's harder to splash when the pool gets more and more crowded.

Go Small or Go Home

If you're a business student (or really anyone with serious ambition) look hard at smaller companies. Your impact, potential, and growth at these kinds of organizations will be significantly larger than at a larger enterprise. You won't get as much mentorship and handholding, however, and you will be trading security for some intangible idea of what could happen. At the same time, higher risk almost always means higher rewards, assuming things work out.

Only you can decide how much risk you're willing to take on, but I will say this: if you're fresh out of university, and the company has maybe a year of runway left, take it. Security at that point is nice but not necessary. You're much more likely to gain a ridiculous amount of insight -- even if the company folds! -- in a year or less with them than you would at a MNE with infinite runway. That learning and knowledge will serve you well in your next job.

Take the plunge, it's worth the risk, and you will not only land on your feet but also be far stronger for the experience.

June 13, 2013

25 x 25: A Goal-Setting Bucket List

Recently, I saw my friend V tweet about how she was taking a ceramics class as part of her New York City bucket list.

It got me thinking. There's so much I want to do that I've been putting off for various reasons. Either it was too expensive or I've been too busy or a hundred other excuses. It's so easy to just say, "I want to do that, but I'm sure I'll do it later." And then later comes and goes and I still haven't done that thing.

About three months ago, I was informed that a major change in my life was going to occur on or around my twenty-fifth birthday. Suddenly, a lot of things clicked and changed for me. I have a deadline, however firm, for me to stop procrastinating and start doing many of the things I kept telling myself I would do later. Add to that the knowledge that many of my friends were starting to leave New York (fairly typical, really -- more on that in a minute) and I knew that I had to take action soon.

I've been in New York about two years, now. My move-to-NY anniversary is on 6 July, which is the day I landed at Newark International with a suitcase and an offer letter. So much has changed and yet surprisingly little has altered since there. I had dreams back then, fresh out of college, of things I wanted -- fully expected -- to accomplish by this time, and surprisingly few of those things ended up happening.

Furthermore, I've noticed that most people stay in New York for about five years, or they end up living here for forever. I don't see myself in the latter category, and I have Plans (with a capital p!) for where I want to be when I am 27/28. Knowing that a lot of changes are coming -- including many of my friends moving on or out -- made me realize that time is precious and limited. It struck me that living in New York is like being perpetually in senior year of university, in that first semester when the future feels tantalizingly near and yet hazy enough to feel indescribably distant.

There isn't a "later," not really. There's just right fucking now.

So! With a little under a year and a half to go until I turn twenty-five, I figured it was time I made a 25x25 (read: "twenty-five by twenty-five") list. It's one part bucket list, one part a list of dreams, and one part personal development.

The List

  1. Write my novel.
  2. Travel to Southeast Asia.
  3. Ride a horse.
  4. Go to every speakeasy in New York City.
  5. Run a half-marathon distance.
  6. Reach my goal weight.
  7. Dine at Per Se.
  8. Design a website.
  9. See a performance at Lincoln Center.
  10. 100 posts on Adventures of a Business Major.
  11. Read every book on my bookshelf.
  12. Visit all five boroughs.
  13. Learn how to play guitar.
  14. Buy myself a diamond.
  15. Take a cooking class.
  16. Pick up a ballroom dance – salsa, merengue, whatever.
  17. Have a picnic in Central Park on a nice day.
  18. Go dance in the rain.
  19. Knit a sweater.
  20. Take a bartending course.
  21. Go to Canada.
  22. Watch the first 50 Disney Animation Studios theatrical films.
  23. Get a non-ear piercing.
  24. Visit every NYPL location in Manhattan.
  25. Spend a weekend in The Hamptons.

1 Note, this list was edited slightly on 14 October 2013, and then again on 7 December 2013.

Why are some of those things on there?

Some of those list items are things I've been dreaming of doing for years, since my senior year of university. Some of those things are dreams I've made since I started working. Some of those are things I feel like I should do, just because they're good life experience types of things. Some of those things are fun things I want to do with my friends. Some are things I'm working towards right now and want to legitimize and "canonize" as real, honest-to-blog goals I have for myself personally. Some are things I know I won't be able to do if/when I leave New York.

And some of those things are about my own personal development. They look fun or even mundane on the surface, but they're about me facing my own fears and insecurities in small (or big!) ways.

A self-reflection exercise

It's surprising, because I was able to populate this list fairly quickly and with few real repeats. It made me really stop and think about what I felt like I was passing on doing for what are really pretty flimsy excuses. I kept telling myself there would be time later, or that I couldn't do everything.

And while those things aren't untrue, they were becoming excuses for me to avoid doing things that challenged or scared me. It was too easy for me to settle into my predictable, routine life. Work, going to the gym, and spending time with friends in casual settings felt like enough. And it was, for a while.

In May, my job and I parted ways. I left, lacking a clear plan on what I was going to do next and with a huge amount of fear -- of the future, of how bad a decision it was to leave without something certain in-hand, of the risk I was taking, of what the hell I was going to do. I took some time to reflect on what I'd learned and what I wanted in the next year, in the next five years.

A lot of that learning got channeled into my 25x25 list. I mentioned that some of the list items are personal development tasks; I realized I needed to work on those aspects about myself based on performance reviews, yes, but also based on what I wanted from my life, both personally and professionally.

Ultimately, I want to be a better me, and identifying my weaknesses and vulnerabilities could only happen when I myself felt weakened and vulnerable. Leaving my job suddenly, taking a huge leap of faith, putting myself in a tough situation helped me learn more about myself and what I actually want.

While I don't necessarily encourage people to make the same choices I did, I do think that self-reflection (and the accompanying self-awareness) is indescribably valuable.

Making your own list

Do it after a year in the workforce.

You should absolutely make your own 25x25 list (or 27x27, or 30x30, whatever) but wait until you're settled into your life first. The very first year out of school was a huge adjustment for me and for many other people I've spoken with. It's a challenging time, one where lots of things are changing, including yourself! I know I grew a lot (metaphorically) in that first year I lived in the New York area. It's not just paying bills and negotiating roommate issues; it's learning the ropes of a new job, navigating office politics, and finding out who you are at work.

Learning those things takes time, so give yourself that opportunity before you self-reflect. In this time, consider journaling or writing regular long emails to a trusted person -- even if those emails are simply sent to yourself. I kept a personal journal of everything that happened in that first year; I'm so glad I did. In reading those entries, I see challenges great and small that I faced, and I am now better able to offer advice and perspective to friends who are just now entering the workforce.

Ask yourself certain key questions.

Any recruiter or support professional can you that asking the right questions is significantly more valuable than simply asking questions willy-nilly. For an exercise like this, start with the bigger pieces and drill down until you have manageable pieces that you can find concrete steps to accomplish.

  • How do I see myself?
  • How do I want to be seen?
  • How do I become that person?
  • Why do I want to be that person?
  • What do I need to do in order to have those skills/qualities?
  • How do I start doing those things?
  • When will I know I've finished?
  • What time frame am I looking at to accomplish these things?
  • Is there a person that I'm trying to emulate? Can I ask that person for advice?
  • What have I been putting off doing?
  • Why have I been postponing doing those things?
  • What would need to happen for me to stop postponing?
  • What prompted me setting that goal for myself?
  • Do I still want to do that, really?

Asking yourself questions like these can help you identify what you really want. If the last few years have taught me nothing else, I've learned this much: you have to know what you want out of your life. If you don't, you're liable to stagnate and stop growing.

Make your list blind.

This might sound counterintuitive, given that I just told you to ask yourself deep questions that you have to break apart into finer and finer pieces, but making your list blind (that is, with no notes or echoes of conversations in your immediate environment) is key to understanding what's important to you. For one, the items that top your list will reflect whatever internal prioritization you've already done. In addition, you'll identify whatever goals you've been putting off that you're still passionate about.

Type up your list until you can't think of anything else, then consult your notes and fill in anything you've missed. Don't be afraid to make a too-long list at first; cutting is always easier than padding.

In my list above, I've been wanting to write my novel for a long time. I have lots of research notes, reference materials, resources, and character sheets from the last several times I tried to pull myself together enough to simply write it. Obviously, I failed in all previous attempts. I'm determined to make the next one count.

I also love to travel but haven't done so as much as I wish I would. Part of it is the sheer expense -- New York is an expensive city, and careful saving only works when unexpected expenditures don't randomly crop up, as they have been for me the last few months. I also told myself that I needed a traveling companion and I didn't really have one in the U.S. whose schedule matched up with mine. Finally, my job was intense; I felt my responsibilities were too great for me to simply take an extended leave to travel. Obviously, my situation changed, and I realized I needed to make this a priority for myself. I let my work define me more than I anticipated, certainly more than I realized I was doing until I left. I found friends in other parts of the country and the world who want to do these things with me. I realized my excuses were just that: excuses.

Ask friends to do the list with you.

Some of the things on your list you'll want to do with friends, absolutely. (For example, in my list, some of those Disney movies are going to be watched with a group of friends for sure!) In fact, some items may even necessitate a group of friends to embark with you.

However, your friends likely have goals and dreams they've also been putting off. Encourage them to make their own lists, and share if you both feel comfortable doing so. Hold each other accountable to your goals, and support each other through tough spots and difficult challenges. Having a partner can help you stay motivated and make mountains into molehills.

Plus, you need someone to hold the camera!

Document your experiences.

Whether it's journaling, scrapbooking, taking photos for a Facebook album, or even simply leaving calendar notes on your phone, take the time to track what you've done. Having a record you can look back on, something you jog your memory when you tell stories, will prove invaluable. It takes a lot of time up front, but it pays off in spades down the road.

What happens after the list is completed?

Honestly, I don't know. But as soon as I do, I'm sure I'll make an entry about it!

June 11, 2013

It's the Little Things You Do

I've been thinking lately about how, more than the big moments, I have a tendency to remember and treasure small moments.

Moments like: once, at lunch, I was trying to remember my New England geography (and failing miserably) and asked my coworker, "What's halfway between New York and DC? Connecticut?" And her expression of disbelief and despair was perfect.

Moments like: one afternoon I watched the company's Ops guy stave off a headache while in hour 2 of what promised to be a continuing, increasingly frustrating call. Knowing he loved dogs, I pulled up the most adorable photograph of a golden retriever pup I could find and made it fullscreen on my laptop. Quietly, I carried my computer over to him, made a shhh gesture, and opened the cover. The size of that smile made my day.

Moments like: early on in my tenure with one of my positions, one of my teammates saw his project effectively restructured without his consent, and was (understandably) upset about that. Knowing his love of chocolate, I popped out of the office during the lunch hour and swung past my favorite chocolatier and picked up an assortment of sweets for him, ganaches and pralines and caramels, in milk and dark. I remember handing him the bag before our daily roundup, and I recall how surprised and touched he was by it. All eight of us sat at our big table, feet propped up on our little desk cabinets, and one of my colleagues commented on how we were kind of a family. At that time, when that team had felt so deeply isolated from every other functional team in the enterprise, that meant a lot.

It's hard to pinpoint why these specific moments have stayed with me through time. It's not like they were particularly game-changing in the course of my work. And there's so many more moments that I didn't mention -- playing catch in the old office, being compared to a small boat by a colleague (in a flattering way, to be clear), trying on sample hats, karaoke nights at this horrible dive in Chinatown, dancing at holiday parties, terrible jokes while playing Apples to Apples, sinking the clutch shot in a game of beer pong, the list goes on -- that are equally mundane or minute in the course of a life. And yet, those are the moments that meant the most to me. Just like I always enjoyed walking to the train with my colleagues. Not for the conversations, but simply because it was.

I guess the biggest thing these have in common is how they instilled a sense of camaraderie in me with the people I worked with. I came to enjoy spending time with these people -- we were, after all, specifically chosen to be part of a really awesome enterprise with a mission we all believed in. In learning about and bonding with my colleagues, I felt more loyal to the enterprise and I worked harder and better for the company. While I went along with the teambuilding activities that were occasionally structured for us, I don't remember those as clearly as I do having a drink with an English colleague. At one point, he turned to me and out of the blue said, "You know what? You're pretty awesome." That single line, more than anything.....it meant a lot.

I know in the U.S. it's generally considered a major faux pas to assume that your colleagues are anything more than simply transient types who work with you and nothing more. But for a smaller organization, that kind of attitude isn't really possible. If you love your work, you're going to be working with and around these people a lot. A lot. You have to trust them, and in the course of doing that, you're going to get to know them.

Maybe I'm an odd duck, but: in coming to trust my colleagues, those small moments, the tiny gestures, the downtime and the quiet in-between time, the blink-and-you'll-miss-it expressions of consideration, they meant the most to me. Startup life means work is more than just clock in, clock out, collect a cheque; the company is a community, especially when the team is still small. When each person demonstrates the best of their humanity, the company (just as with any community) is stronger for it.