Sunday, August 9, 2009

Goal: better listening

My "goal of the week" is to improve my listening skills. By really focusing on what the person talking is trying to say, I think I'll be able to better understand what they're getting at. Anyways, if you catch me sort of "half-listening" to you any time in the next month (or anytime, really), give me a little reminder to pay attention. Thanks!

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Single-axis achievement

After a deep and thoughtful conversation with Ben (which lasted a few hours and made us forget about lunch plans), I came up with a few realizations about myself and the life path I'm currently following. For one, I was relieved to hear that Ben also feels a strong pressure to achieve, and that he often feels that when he is not actively contributing his energy towards either furthering his goals or building his ability to achieve them, he feels anxious -- as though he is not performing to the maximum of his abilities. I feel exactly the same way. When he described the anxiety as possibly the greatest barrier to his individual happiness, I was so happy to realize that someone thinks the same way I do.

We discussed the topic for some time, and a few points came up that really helped me dispel some of my anxiety. I pointed out that I'm not very good at understanding the exact actions that will lead me to optimizing my ability to achieve my goals, yet I act and work as though I do. For example, I force myself to read things about my "industry," study intensely, work hard on reducing my interest in "distractions" and entertainment, etc. In reality, I have no idea whether my current mix of effort is actually the maximal way to achieve -- maybe by engaging myself in a broader set of social activities, my ability to achieve will be enhanced in ways I can't even imagine (like making connections, etc.). Still, because the timescale for feedback on a "life method" is so large, I'm unable to make any rapid adjustments, so I cling to the arbitrarily defined mix of activities I just described. Worse, -- and this relates to Ben's concern -- when I take time away from that mix, I feel an anxiety that I'm not doing the most I can to achieve, which is definitely not conducive to my feeling of equanimity.

But perhaps I'm making a more fundamental mistake. All of my achievement-based efforts are directed towards accomplishing a single measurable goal. Because "helping people be happy" is so broad, I am forced to narrow my goals to something more easily measured, like "helping create a company that delivers badly needed services to those in need" (just an example). This is much more measurable (and thus conducive to competition/achievement), since I can say "we delivered X units to Y people." As Ben and I discussed, we're well aware that the way to achieve such goals is the 'traditional' method of diligence, study, and hard work. In that sense, the anxiety I described previously is a valuable asset, because it urges me to build myself into a high-achiever. However, my fatal flaw is that I'm only measuring and maximizing my success on a single axis (# of units delivered to the poor), when in reality, I affect the world in countless ways, particularly through my daily actions and my apparent happiness.

Through our discussion, I was reassured that we have an even more valuable contribution to make by showing others that we can accomplish our goals (perhaps to a slightly lesser degree) and be happy. We agreed that we could much more effectively maximize our contributions by showing others, through our personal philosophies and everyday lives, that working hard doesn't have to mean unhappy/tiring/empty. Otherwise, if we focus too narrowly on our arbitrarily defined single axis of achievement, we might act in a way that would hurt people and spread unhappiness. I'm sure you can think of at least a few people who are extreme achievers yet are unpleasant to be around: power-grabbers, ambitious "jerks," sycophants, etc. Even if it didn't go that far, people would not want to learn from our working/living philosophies because it would seem as though we weren't enjoying life because we didn't develop ourselves in other ways.

I'm very happy to think that I can work on improving myself in several dimensions at once without worrying too much about the loss in accomplishment towards the primary goal. In fact, I feel a lot more confident now that I can make an even greater overall contribution by developing my happiness and sharing my methods and ideas with others. All things are interconnected, after all.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009


Some pre-reading for MIT on power, by Pfeffer (sort of irrelevant for this blog, but whatever). Basically, he's defending the idea that one should build a network of "allies" through unsolicited favors, regardless of how it may appear to outsiders.

It is easy to see the building of a network of support, either through the appointment and promotion process or through personal favors, as activities that are somehow illegitimate or inappropriate. Such a view would be incomplete at best. The development and exercise of power in organizations is about getting things accomplished. The very nature of organizations--interdependent, complex systems with many actors and many points of view-- means that taking action is often problematic. Failures in implementation are almost invariable failures to build successful coalitions. Although networks of allies can obviously be misused, they are nevertheless essential in order to get things done. And, allies must be put in place through whatever practical means are at hand.

Wow. Pretty bold.... I'm shocked he just outright said that