One of the things that I love about my job is working with creative people. I don’t mean just the graphic designers, artists and such, but people with creative mindsets from every industry, who bring their passion and curiosity into their work.
A great living case study is my friend Susan Bennett from MSD. She turned up in my office boardroom last week with her team for a thought experiment.
“We’re just playing with this! It’s a thought experiment and we’re going to find out what happens” she said, as her team was setting up posters with problems to solve (sample – “How can you turn health care into a personal grooming act?”) on the walls of our office and distributing Business Canvas model worksheets to the students that were trickling into the room.
The original venue they had booked had an air-conditioning failure and they had moved into our office boardroom instead at the last minute, but everyone was upbeat and the buzz of energy was palpable.
Susan’s words, energy and attitude really resonated with me and started me thinking – why don’t we spend more time thinking about work-play integration?
So much of the time we think of work as drudgery or duty. Even the words “workload”, “duties” and “projects” sound so onerous.
The most successful people I know have a quality of lightness about them. Their offices or labs are their playgrounds. Instead of work, they play with ideas and concepts.
Can we mentally reframe our projects into thought experiments that we delight in finding the answers to?
Can we dance with unexpected changes and use them to challenge our creativity?
Can we love the process of creating and not cling on to our ideas of expected outcomes?
In an era when we will all be living longer (till 115 years, some predict!), it is never more vital that we keep infusing our work with joy to keep us engaged, and get serious about play.
I grew up hearing my mother say “If you want something done right, do it yourself”, usually accompanied with a sigh conveying equal parts exhaustion but also fierce pride.
And as I grew up, I started hearing this sentence echoed by many people around me, especially amongst strong, capable, busy women who are often the informal glue of their community.
However, in my role as a leader, I now regard this as a dangerous life rule to play by if the do-it-yourself philosophy turns into a relentless need for control over the small things. Many times I see people who get stuck in their careers at a certain level, because they are unwilling to give up control over tasks or duties that don’t serve them or stretch them anymore.
It’s a lesson that I’ve learned the hard way myself.
When I started off in my role at NUS, I insisted on doing everything myself, from writing the curriculum, to teaching the students, to double-checking the AV and sound, all the way down to sticking the masking tape on the floor of our workshops to demarcate where people should stand.
Those were crazy days!
I remember going to a Mozart concert at the YCT Conservatory after an exhausting day at work one day, and while I was watching the beautiful, complicated, precise movements of the orchestra, I had a sudden epiphany.
In my role as a leader of my team, I was the conductor of the orchestra. But imagine, I was conducting a few bars, then jump on to the stage and play the first violin for another few bars, and then duck behind the stage and compose the next 3 bars of music, and then run outside on the street and drag in more audience members to watch the show, and jump back into the conductor’s pit again.
I needed to let go and learn that at my stage, my principal role was as producer director. I started building a team that could operate on their own – the composers, the principal players, the operations team, the sales people, so that I could use my skills to create value at the highest possible level that I was hired to do.
It was a painful process because I had this ego-attachment to the “No one can do it as well as I can” philosophy.
But I challenged myself to adopt a Beginner’s Mind attitude, and I soon found out that if you stretch people and give them enough space to learn and experiment, they can surprise you with their growth and wisdom. It also takes a whole tribe working together to achieve anything important. I love that African saying – if you go alone you go fast, if you go together you go far.
Now that it’s annual review season, I find myself talking to certain members of my team who are at the stage where they need to evolve and step into the next level of leadership. And that means that they need to start learning to delegate, let go and surrender control of the things that they’ve outgrown, even though they are running those tasks so well that they’ve become a well-oiled machine, so that they make space for new challenges.
To be clear, I don’t mean delegate everything all the time. It’s about balance. You still have to learn skills from the bottom up when you’re starting off. And even at a senior position, you have to have an eye for the details and be willing to roll up the sleeves and do anything and everything that’s required.
However, you only have a limited amount of hours in a day. Are you intentionally using those hours wisely to play at the highest possible level? To do the things that really use the best of your skills and abilities so that you can operate at the limits of your potential? Or are you getting caught up in the small stuff?
2 questions to reflect on
1.) Are you choosing Comfort, or are you choosing Growth?
These are the 2 basic modes. When you’re in Comfort, you sure as hell aren’t growing, and when you’re in Growth, you sure as hell won’t be comfortable.
I’m not saying that you have to choose Growth all the time! Life would be bloody exhausting if you were relentlessly chasing Growth in every waking moment without looking at well-being and comfort, you’ll get burned out.
2.) Reflect on what you’ve been spending time on and ask yourself what you can stop doing.
Too much of the time, our tendency is to add more things to the “start doing” list, but the “stop doing” list is just as important.
Reflect often on the answers to these two questions for the choices you make will shape your career, and the richness and value that you get out of life itself.
(picture taken at gorgeous Lake Tahoe where I was lucky enough to have a couple of days off recently :))
“I’m a Director of a Careers Centre, and I have a confession to make.
I don’t believe in careers. Not as the traditional concept, anyway. ”
That was what I wrote to Channel NewsAsia when they asked me to write a commentary piece about job seekers struggling to find the “right” career for them and what advice I would give for people who were trying to decide whether to follow their passion or to “settle” for the jobs that were available.
In the future, I believe that instead of thinking in terms of careers, we will be focused on collective problem-solving. Every job is just a problem that needs to be solved, that requires certain skills to unlock.
The portfolio or gig economy is here already. Studies suggest that by 2020, 40% of American workers will be independent contractors. In a 2016 report from Barclays, 24% of workers under 34 had already worked in 4 industries. Compare this to our parents generation, where it was the norm to work in the same industry for their entire career.
The linear concept of a “career ladder” is now shifting to thinking about your “career web”, defined by lateral moves as well as traditional “promotions”.
But in the midst of so much choice, I also see so many job-seekers struck by analysis paralysis.
The psychologists call this “the paradox of choice”. My favourite example is the famous Jam study in 2000 by psychologists Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper.
Shoppers were either given a choice of 24 jams or 6 jams to choose from. The larger display attracted more shoppers than the smaller one, but when it came to making a choice, the 24-jam crowd were only 1/10th as likely to buy a jam as the people who saw the smaller display.
Increased choice decreases satisfaction whether it’s jam or jobs. So many don’t choose and remain stuck.
Many of our youth also talk about how its hard for them to choose jobs that don’t align with their dreams and passions, or that they haven’t “found” their passion yet. In my experience, most successful people don’t “find” a passion. They grow it.
It’s very rare to have develop singular clarity about passions and purpose early on in life. What’s more important and practical for most of us to focus on cultivating curiosity about accumulating skills. Each new skill or pursuit you embark on is a seed. The more seeds you plant, the better your chance of finding that one or two strong seedlings that will take root and grow into a mighty oak tree of your life’s purpose. And in fact, for most of us “older ones”, we know that your passions will change. What your passion is at 30 can be very different at 40 or 50. So its very important to cultivate curiosity and develop the ability to learn (heutagogy – self-determined learning).
My advice to job seekers in the age of what we call a VUCA (Volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world is this:
I’m a huge Dilbert fan and Scott Adams, the celebrated cartoonist who created Dilbert, often talks about how he has layered a combination of self-described “mediocre” skills into a “talent stack” that is quite special.
There are people who had much better drawing skills and much better business insights than Scott Adams, but no cartoonist had the combination of both, which is what makes Dilbert so special and relatable to the masses of corporate workers out there.
I also have a diverse combination of modest skills – business, banking, social-emotional intelligence, public speaking, psychology, writing, and all of these have contributed to my career. There are definitely better business people than me, but many lack emotional intelligence. I’m often surrounded by smarter academics with great ideas, but many lack the ability to execute on their vision.
Each of us needs to develop our unique talent stack and it is in the collection of diverse skills, experience and prototyping that we amass enough data to be able to a better architect of our career and retain the flexibility to remain relevant in a constantly changing world.
The more skills you have, the better your competitive advantage. Practice your curiosity muscle. Try new interests, join clubs, hobbies, past-times, take a new route back home from work. The research suggests that curiosity is one of the biggest drivers of human potential and success in life.
At NUS, we run a signature future-ready skills module for all our freshmen called Roots & Wings, which focuses on social emotional intelligence, mindfulness and personal leadership. Some people call these the “soft skills” but I hate that term. These are sometimes the hardest skills to practice and the ones that will make the biggest difference to your success at work, in relationships and in life.
A big part of our program is centered on developing and practicing 3 types of mindful awareness – self-awareness, interpersonal awareness and awareness of the wider world around you.
In a VUCA world, awareness is your “sensing” ability. If your sensors can only pick up certain datasets and are missing others, then you will be at a disadvantage. You need the very best sensors in an ambiguous world so that you can pick up information others miss, or understand how to iterate or which direction to go when there is no black or white, right or wrong.
Resilience is the ability to bounce back from adversity. When we teach about resilience, the most important way to develop resilience is practice a “Growth Mindset”, a term coined by Prof Carol Dweck from Stanford.
A Growth Mindset essentially means a state of mind where you believe that if you put in effort, you can grow your talent. The opposite is a Fixed Mindset, where you believe that talents are “innate gifts” and you’re either a certain type of person or not.
Fixed vs Growth is a powerful mindset choice that impacts every area of life. And important to note, you’re neither a “Fixed Mindset person” or “Growth Mindset person”, but most of us move up and down the fixed-growth mindset spectrum depending on the situation, often several times a day. In relationships I may be more fixed mindset – oh that person will never change no matter how much effort. In parenting I may have more of a growth mindset – I don’t have any experience being a parent but I believe that as long as I put in effort, I’m going to be able to be the best parent I can be.
When it comes to careers, in a Fixed Mindset most people don’t try new jobs because they are afraid of failure.
In a Fixed Mindset, you think if I fail at something, I AM a failure. It must have meant I’m not that type of person that is good at that.
In a Growth Mindset, if you try something and it doesn’t succeed, it means that you’ve expanded the boundaries of your learning. In a Growth Mindset, you think “I haven’t succeeded yet… but if I just keep applying effort, I can get there.”
In a hypercompetitive world, the effort we put in is crucial.
Angela Duckworth goes further to say effort is more important than IQ as it counts twice. Her simple formula:
Talent x Effort = Skill
Skill x Effort = Achievement
As you can see, pure talent without effort will never become skill. Pure skill without effort put in will not translate into results or achievement.
Of course luck, opportunities and other external factors come into play when it comes to success.
However I always tell my students, it’s not to say that a Growth Mindset will guarantee success, but a Fixed Mindset guarantees failure.
*A modified version of this article was published by Channel NewsAsia as a commentary piece here:
One of the biggest issues I hear about from employers is the scarcity of leaders and employees who can problem-solve and deal with ambiguity. This week alone, I had 3 meetings with employers who were asking me about “ambiguity- training” to help their employees thrive in a world of uncertainty.
Line managers often complain about Millennials needing constant guidance and direction- “where’s the template” “where do I find this” ” how long should this email be?” instead of taking the initiative and ownership to have an attempt at figuring things out in the first instance.
While I don’t think that this is an exclusively “Millennial” problem, I can also see how we’ve been conditioning our youth to behave this way since early childhood.
In Singapore, our education system is super-structured. We love to overteach and set clear assessment rubrics rather than give open-ended assignments or facilitate freeform discussions, which actually require greater skill on the part of the teacher to be able to guide the learning and weave learning outcomes into whatever “emerges”.
Assignments come with specific directives and a plethora of instructions, which encourages linear thinking and an overreliance on external authority and extrinsic motivation. I still remember my Chinese teacher who spent 5 minutes screaming at me in front of the whole class and flung my spelling book out of the window because I hadn’t used a ruler to draw a margin on one page.
What we have been cultivating, unwittingly, is the inability for our youth to develop their own sensing and decision making ability. And out of the 4 “VUCA” factors affecting our world today (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Amiguity), I find the youth that I deal with are struggling the hardest with “Ambiguity”.
The very first questions when I give an assignment or project tend to be “How many words should I write?” and if I tell them “As long as it needs to be”, you can see most of them going into trauma on the spot!
Why? We have been training process-followers, not problem-solvers. And ambiguity is hell for process-followers.
A process-follower’s survival mechanism in complex situations is to go into “confusion” and play the victim instead of taking responsibility to find solutions. But I find that actually most people are far more capable than they claim to be.
Confusion tends to be a convenient excuse.
Confusion allows you to maintain your ego. You don’t get the results you want, not because of your ability, but because it was out of your control. Nobody gave you clear instructions. The system isn’t set up in a way that supports you. The benefits of being a victim are endless.
You get sympathy, pity, attention, bonding with other victims, lack of responsibility.
You get learned helplessness, and the chance to infect others with your world view and gain supporters. The only thing you don’t get is results.
So how do we deal with ambiguity? 3 ways to start:
Firstly, develop your sensors. When you don’t have a clear direction, your sensing ability and feedback mechanisms need to be top notch so that you know which way to go. Learn to cultivate self-awareness and reflection, interpersonal awareness and the EQ to read others emotions and behaviours, and the ability to zoom out into situational awareness to see the big picture.
Secondly, watch your linear thinking. Are you too black and white in your own world view? A sure sign is to see if you are using words like “right” “wrong” “correct” “failed” etc. Can you be more spacious in your directions? Instead of saying “Can we do this?”, ask “Which part of this is possible?
Instead of “right” or “correct”, I say “appropriate” or “working”, because in an ambiguous world, there is no one right or wrong approach. Often seemingly contradictory concepts have to work together. What makes sense today may not make sense tomorrow.
Thirdly, ask good questions and encourage self-reflection in others instead of giving directions all the time. I used to encourage my team to be more assertive all the time, but this wasn’t always the best approach. Some actually needed to be less assertive and better listeners instead. What worked better was to coach them to be familiar with their own communication style and ask questions like “When does their communication style work for you? And when does it create problems? Who are the most difficult stakeholders for you to communicate with and why? Can you detect when your approach is working, and do you have the skill and flexibility to switch styles?
Lastly, experiment, prototype and stay radically nonattached to your decisions. This is where your ego really has to take the backseat. If the situation changes, sometimes that means changing your strategy, which always runs the risk of looking foolish. But I’d rather look foolish than be foolish. Try to zoom out and think of the big picture. When you’re growing rapidly and innovating, many ideas will flop. If you “fail” at something, shift to the mindset of “I’ve learned something new and expanded the boundaries of my knowledge”.
Try all of these and the results may surprise you. Let me know how it goes!
(Picture from our Future-ready Educators Summer School June 2017)
I was recently invited to an “Technology & Education” forum where there were many lively discussions about how to bring education into the digital age.
During one of these forums, a speaker talked about how he had learned that students were too shy to ask questions during class and his solution was to allow them to use their mobile phones to post anonymous questions via an app, which were then displayed onscreen to the entire class.
Before I knew it, I was on my feet, arms akimbo, saying “That’s a TERRIBLE idea!”
I think I said something along the lines of this:
I talk to real world employers every single day. And one of their biggest concerns is that students (particularly in Singapore), just do not ask questions.
Asking questions. Having the courage to raise your hand and the humility to say “Well this may be a stupid question but…”. Getting used to the sensation of your heart leaping into your throat when you venture an idea. Taking ownership for your thoughts. All this is crucial to your future career.
Is our job as educators to pander to students by making life easier for them, or is it to push them out of their comfort zone, provoking them, challenging and stretching them while they’re still in the blessed relative safety of their University years?
It is tempting to jump on the tech bandwagon and I’m certainly a huge fan of using technology wisely. But we always have to consider what outcomes we’re aiming for, and what behaviours we want to model.
When does technology actually enhance the learning experience, or allow us to scale, and when is it merely convenient, or worse, a gimmick.
One way in which I love to use technology is in the form of a live word cloud.
This is from one of my Roots & Wings workshops on developing a Growth Mindset.
Here we asked 150 students to whip out their mobile phones, log on to a website where they could anonymously enter one or two words about their own individual limiting belief;- what they felt would prevent them from achieving the success that they wanted in life.
This was an incredibly personal exercise, so being able to use technology to preserve confidentiality and encourage honesty was immensely useful.
In these workshops, it is always a powerful experience to watch the blank screen start to be populated by real, vulnerable limiting beliefs from the students in front of us, and to watch the words grow bigger onscreen as more students type in similar responses.
It never fails to blow me away, how in every class, the most popular response is a variation of “Not Good Enough” or “Not Smart Enough”, despite the fact that I work in, according to the rankings, Asia’s Number 1 University, and globally in the top 20.
Later on, when I do a debrief with the students, I ask them what it’s like to see this limiting beliefs wordcloud grow before their eyes.
I’ll never forget one student who said “I can’t believe that everyone here feels the same way. I’ve gone through 20 years thinking that I was the only one who felt like an imposter. It’s just incredibly liberating to feel…. normal.”
It’s a interesting, paradoxical experience. Standing in a room of young men and women where technology has created a safe, intimate space so that we can have more human and humane conversations. Digital innovation need not be at odds with humanity, as long as we keep our eyes on the moon, not on the finger that points to the moon.