Category Archives: Career

10 Lessons from 10 Mentors

I’m a thief.

I’m constantly reading and looking for ideas or concepts to steal from people. These people that I steal ideas from become my mentors, whether they know it or not. Some of these ideas are useful. Some I try and don’t like. Some really stick with me.

Here’s a list of 10 lessons from 10 mentors that really stuck with me. I take advantage of all of these, every single day.

1. Checklists save lives. Use them liberally. (Atul Gawande)

Your mind is fallible. You forget things. You skip important steps, especially in times of stress. That’s where checklists come in. A simple checklist gives you a baseline of performance, so you never fall below that standard. At the very least, you’ll do what the checklist says. Not only that, but the very act of writing a checklist forces you to evaluate a process and ensure it’s as effective and as simple as it can be. Read Gawande’s book The Checklist Manifesto for more on this.

2. Take a shit ton of notes, on everything. (Tim Ferriss)

I carry a notebook almost everywhere I go. I have Evernote on every device I own. And I use Twitter to capture ideas I’m thinking about or pondering. It’s not important to me that I can reference my notes — the very act of writing things down helps to cement things in my head, and stimulates more ideas. Tim calls this note-taking tendency ‘hypergraphia’.

3. To improve anything you’ve written, read it to yourself, out loud. (Tucker Max)

At Book In A Box Tucker recommended this as the best way to edit any piece of writing. Sit down, and read it to yourself, out loud. You’ll notice awkward phrasings, weird repetition, spelling mistakes, and much more. Tucker said that any author should always record their audiobook before the written book is published, because you’d pick up so many things to improve that the book would be 10-20% better. Another Book In A Box team member, Hal Clifford, is a fantastic writer and editor with decades of writing experience. He told me that anything he writes — from a 3 word text message to a 50,000 word book manuscript — he reads out loud before he submits it.

4. If you’re thinking about buying a book, just buy it. (Ramit Sethi)

Books represent the best bargain you can possibly find. For £10 or less, you can get the benefit of someone’s entire professional expertise or wisdom, in easily digestible form. And one good idea from a book can provide 10-1000x ROI. This has personally been true for me more than once. So just go ahead and buy the damn book already.

5. Eliminate all the minor annoyances in your life. (Joshua Kennon)

Your life is the sum of all the small moments in your day. If there is something that often frustrates you or annoys you, that’s a suck on your energy. You don’t want to spend a lot of your small moments annoyed by something that’s easy to fix. So go ahead and fix it. I was annoyed by one of the door handles in my apartment — it was loose, and every time I grabbed it, it would come out of the door a little. This went on for weeks. Then I finally grabbed a screwdriver and tightened it. It took 5 minutes. And now I don’t get annoyed every time I leave the room. That’s a big difference to my quality of life. Now multiply that across all areas of your life, and think how much better things could be. You can see an example of this in Joshua’s post here about fixing his front door.

6. Cash is king and creates optionality. Debt is fragility and slavery. (Nassim Taleb)

Having cash in the bank — liquid, easily accessible cash — gives you options, freedom and peace of mind. Private investor Brent Beshore says “Cash is the ultimate call option with no expiration date or strike price.” Imagine if you have the cash on hand to buy when the market tanks. When there’s a fire sale on assets and you’re the only buyer. On the flip side, imagine if you have to be the one to sell in a down market because the bank’s called in your loan. Or you have to stay in the same job you don’t like because you have credit card debt, and can’t afford to risk taking on a new job or starting your own company. Cash is king. Read Antifragile by Taleb for more on this.

7. Minimise decision-making. Forget the trivia and focus on the important things. (Barack Obama)

In this Vanity Fair profile, Obama told author Michael Lewis that he only has two suits: grey and blue. He likes both, and looks good in both, so he either wears one or the other. He doesn’t waste time or energy deciding what to wear each morning: he just picks one and gets on with his day, to save his energy for the important things that he needs to be ready for. Where are the areas in your life that you can remove friction and free up mental energy?

8. Write down your top 25 goals. Now narrow it down to the top 5. Those are your goals — and the other 20 are distractions you must avoid. (Warren Buffett)

Your attention, time, energy and capital are limited. You can only do so much. And so you have to focus. So focus on those top 5 goals, and don’t get distracted. Goals 6 to 25 on your list may seem worthwhile and deserving of your time — that is why they are such powerful distractions. Focus on what’s truly at the top of your list, and ruthlessly cut out everything else. That’s what the world’s best investor recommends.

9. Use fixed schedule productivity as the meta-habit for your work. (Cal Newport)

Decide when you will start working, and when you will stop. Then stick rigidly to those hours. That’s what fixed schedule productivity really means, and it’s a game changer. It is a forcing function that means a) you need to make sure you’re working on the right things, and b) you’re being productive when you’re doing it. 60 minute meetings become 15 minute meetings. A disjointed, unfocused afternoon turns into a great session of important work. It takes discipline, but it’s worth it.

10. Write down 10 ideas a day to exercise your idea muscle. (James Altucher)

Just like any other muscle, you need to regularly exercise your idea muscle. You don’t have to do anything with the ideas; the important thing is that you get the reps in. Your ideas can be about anything and everything — you just need to do it every day. It will change your life within 6 months. You will become an idea machine. And hey, you might occasionally get a blog post out of it.

Those are my big 10 takeaways from these 10 mentors of mine. Do you have any big lessons you’ve learned from mentors? Drop a note in the comments.

Want to turbocharge your career and boost your earnings? Check out my upcoming book, The Career Superpower.

How I got fired from my dream job — and what I learned

Tucker Max fired me, two days before Christmas.

I was the first full-time employee at his new startup, Book In A Box. I quit my corporate job, and moved to Austin, Texas, at the start of 2015. I lived there for three months and then came back to the UK and worked remotely from home.

The role was everything I’d wanted in a job for years. I escaped the prison of dull, unfulfilling corporate life and leapt into a fast-paced startup, working in a niche that I loved, not having to be at the office at any given time, free to work when and where I wanted. And I was working for someone that I had followed and looked up to for nearly a decade.

In the 12 months I was at Book In A Box, I helped grow the company from 3 people to 9 people, and from $50k per month to $400k per month in revenue. I worked with authors from all over the world, helping them to publish their books and share their wisdom with the world. I met some fantastic people, and had some amazing experiences.

And then I was fired.

And it was all my fault.

I want to preface this by saying that Tucker and his co-founder Zach are great people, and I have no bad feelings towards them at all. We’re still on good terms, and they were 100% right to fire me. In fact, their biggest mistake was not doing it sooner.

So why was I fired?

The easy answer is to say that I was fired for performance — or, rather, lack of it. I wasn’t doing a good enough job, so I was fired.

But that’s not a complete answer. WHY wasn’t I doing a good enough job? What caused me to fail so badly, when I should have wanted to succeed more than anything?

I’ve thought about it a lot, and now I need to write about it. I need to unpack all of my issues, assumptions, biases and irrational behaviour. I’ll warn you now — this post is long, and quite self-indulgent, but I hope it will help me deal with these issues, and stop others from falling into the same traps.

It’s painful to write about it, because it’s painful to document all the different ways in which I screwed up. To write, in detail, about how I failed. But I need to do it anyway.

What it boils down to is this:

I was working remotely, in a job I didn’t like doing. Combined, these two things led to chronic, debilitating procrastination, and I would put off work for hours (or even days), and as a result, didn’t get enough done.

That’s the crux of the matter — but again, we need to go a layer deeper than this. Why didn’t I like the job I was doing, and why did I choose to procrastinate so much?

To start with, let’s look at exactly what my job was.

My role: Publishing Manager

Book In A Box helps people write and publish their own book. Our clients were typically CEOs, entrepreneurs, speakers and consultants, who were publishing their book to establish their authority in their niche, build their personal brand, and act as a lead gen tool for their business.

As Publishing Manager, I managed their whole project from start to finish. I was the client’s main point of contact throughout the whole process, and talk them through every step of the way.

That sounds straightforward — but in that description are the seeds of my downfall, namely:

  1. I was the main point of contact for all our clients — so I spent a large part of my day answering emails and on the phone, in responsive mode rather than actively creating things.
  2. I was the main point of contact for all our clients — so if they had problems, they came to me, and I had to deal with them and solve them.
  3. I was the main point of contact for ALL our clients — I was the only one doing this job, and the only person at Book In A Box that our clients would interact with for long periods of time.

These attributes of the job, by themselves, aren’t bad. In fact, for some people, this job description sounds amazing. But not for me. They combined with some of my own personal issues to create real issues in my job. Issues like:

 

1. I don’t like working remotely, especially with a big time difference.

This is actually a fairly simple issue. I’ve often struggled to create routines and structure for myself — I’ve failed when I’ve tried to pick up habits like exercising regularly, meditating, dieting, and the like. So for me, the structure that comes with a 9-5 office job is actually a good thing, as it forces me to get up at a reasonable hour, go to an office with other people, sit down at a desk, and work for a good number of hours. It forces me to be accountable.

When I started working remotely, I loved it at first — I could go to the gym at 11am when it was quiet, or go to the driving range mid-afternoon and hit some balls — but I quickly realised I wasn’t actually getting much work done.

To try and impose some discipline on myself, I rented some office space, and would go there every day. But with the rest of my company, and most of my clients, asleep until about 1pm UK time, I would usually sleep in. I might go to the gym first thing, and get to the office around 10am, where I’d basically browse Reddit and listen to podcasts until about 1pm, when everyone would wake up and start posting on Slack, which is when I’d get to work. I would also finish working around 6pm, when my girlfriend got home from work. I was basically working 5 hours a day.

In many jobs, this would be enough to get everything done. But in a fast-growing startup. I was struggling to keep up, because it just  wasn’t enough time to get all my work done.

The other issue is that working remotely is lonely, especially when most of your company isn’t awake until halfway through your working day. There’s a lot less banter and talk between colleagues, even with tools like Slack. Some people don’t need that interaction, and like the peace and quiet that comes from working at home. I’m not one of those people. I’m naturally an extrovert, and I need the daily interaction and the energy it gives me. There’s no substitute for having people sat next to you that you can talk to, or having your colleagues sat next to you working hard, and making you feel like you should be doing the same.

And when you’re working remotely, it’s a lot easier to ignore a problem. I didn’t take ownership for the issues that I noticed or that were under my control. In fact, I didn’t take ownership for myself: for my own productivity and work habits. I let myself be a victim to my circumstances, instead of doing the hard work to fix it.

 

2. I am too eager to please people, and I don’t like confrontation.

I said that a big part of my job was solving issues for our clients. Unfortunately, these problems were sometimes partly out of my control — for example, if we were waiting on some book cover designers from a freelance designer. I was usually too eager to please the client, so I’d give them unrealistically short timeframes for when we’d have the designs back. That date would come and go, and the client would follow up with me, annoyed.

Rather than deal with that issue, I’d just ignore it, and not answer their email. This happened multiple times, and as you can imagine, this is really bad customer service. But seeing as though I was the client’s only point of contact, there was no-one for them to complain to–so I could get away with it. At least for awhile.

I was struggling to keep up, because the company was growing so fast, and I was the only one dealing with all of our clients. We could have hired more people to help me. But I didn’t say anything to Tucker or Zach about it for a long time, for a couple of reasons:

  1. I felt guilty about not working hard enough, because I knew the problem was partly my fault; and
  2. I didn’t want to complain and make it sound like I was causing problems. I was too eager to keep them happy, and just decided to suffer in silence, rather than raise the issue and have a difficult conversation (for me) about how to solve the problem.

This actually had a really harmful effect: I kept expecting to be “found out”, so I would put off opening up my emails or Slack in the morning, because I was always convinced that today would be the day someone would realise I suck at my job, and there’d be an angry message waiting for me, telling me how bad I was.

And this anxiety meant that I dreaded opening up my laptop every day. I buried my head in the sand, and refused to face the issue. Which, of course, only made things worse.

 

3. I am sometimes humble — to a fault.

I’m a smart guy, but I’m well aware that I don’t have the answer to everything. And having followed Tucker’s career and looked up to him for a long time, I knew he was extremely smart, and a good entrepreneur. But I looked up to him too much, and often substituted his judgement for my own.

I remember one occasion where we were talking about when we’d need to hire someone else to do the same thing as me — how many clients we’d need to get before I would reach breaking point. I thought the answer would be about 50. Tucker thought it was more like 100.

What I should have said was:

“Tucker, I think you’re wrong — here are the issues with what your estimate, and here’s why my answer is more likely to be right — and if I do need to be able to handle 100 clients, here are the problems we need to solve to get there.”

What I actually said was…nothing.

Instead, I thought to myself, “OK, Tucker’s smarter than me, so he must be right about this — even though I’m the only one doing this job and have a lot more information about it than he does, and he has a habit of anchoring to high expectations. He’s probably right.”

I doubted myself too much, and looked up to Tucker too much to question his judgement. So I didn’t step up to the plate and deal with the issue.

Again, I also felt guilty about not working enough, and thought, “Well, if I just work harder, I’ll be able to solve this problem.” And I didn’t want to face the issue, and couldn’t deal with the confrontation.

 

4. I liked the status of what I was doing more than I actually liked doing it

So with all of these issues, why didn’t I just quit? Why not just say “You know what? Good luck in the future, and I hope you all do really well, but this job just isn’t for me.”?

Well, partly because that means admitting the problem and dealing with it, rather than ignoring it.  But there were two other reasons that stopped me.

First, I liked the status of the job. It’s fun to be able to have conversations like this:

Me: “I work for a startup founded by a NYT best-selling author. I was employee #1 and flew out to Austin for a few months to help them get the company off the ground. I’m going to our next quarterly meeting in Las Vegas next week — we went to New York in the summer, but there’s a couple of conferences in Vegas that we want to go to this time round. I used to work a corporate job, but it was just too dull, I had to go and do something exciting!”

Friend: “Wow, that’s so cool! I wish I could do that!”

Me: “Well, I had to work hard and hustle to get this job, but I’m so glad I did, I could never go back to being a corporate drone again.”

Those conversations, and the looks of envy that they generate, are addictive. It feels great to say things like that about yourself, and have people think more of you. Even if it’s just a facade, and the reality is that you’re anxious, miserable, and don’t ever wake up actually WANTING to work.

The second reason was that I really like Tucker. I really like Zach. And I really like Book In A Box. They are great guys, running a great company, with fantastic people, and it will be a huge success. And even if it’s not, I had a blast with them and the rest of the Book In A Box team, hanging out at our quarterly meetings in Austin, NYC and Las Vegas, drinking amazing wine and eating incredible food, having great conversations, and all helping each other improve personally and professionally. I LOVED all that.

I just hated the work I had to do for the actual job.

But admitting that might mean jeopardising my place in the team — and it’s a hard problem to face, and I don’t like confrontation, and I just wanted to please them, and it’s always easier to avoid issues when your co-workers are thousands of miles away.

So I ignored it.

 

The Culmination

You see how these all add up? There’s a lollapalooza effect of multiple issues here, creating a perfect storm that led to chronic procrastination, and a general inability to actually do work beyond that which is immediately necessary to prevent getting fired (in the short-term at least).

But it wasn’t enough.

I actually recognised and started to face a lot of these issues in mid-December, when I started having daily and weekly check-in calls with one of my co-workers, Kevin. I started to tackle them and make progress, but it was too little, too late.

By that point, I’d been underperforming for months, and Tucker and Zach had to take the decision to let me go, to protect the rest of the company. That was 100% the right decision — and like I said, they probably should have done it 2-3 months sooner than that.

I don’t begrudge them at all. I still had a lot of fun times working for Book In A Box, and learned a ton about writing, publishing, marketing, running a small business, customer service, project management, process improvement and about 6 other things. But here are the main lessons I take from this experience.

 

What I learned from my time at Book In A Box

 

1. I need to take extreme ownership

Ironically I got this from a book that Tucker recommended to me, Extreme Ownership by Jocko Willink. You can listen to a podcast he did with Tim Ferriss here too.

The idea is this: everything, absolutely everything, is down to you. Willink uses the example of a platoon commander. Obviously things like his orders to his men, and the tactics he uses on the battlefield, are the responsibility of the platoon commander. But if his CO doesn’t give him the equipment he needs, then what can he do? That’s outside of his control, right?

Wrong. It’s the platoon commander’s responsibility to effectively communicate to his CO what he needs, why he needs it, and what the consequences are if he doesn’t get it. And if he still doesn’t get it, then that’s his fault, because he didn’t sufficiently communicate that need.

It was my job to do my job — but it was also my job to tell everyone else what I needed, how I was doing, what problems I was having, and ask for help to solve them. So if I was struggling to keep up, I needed to own it and make that clear. If I thought a process needed to be changed, even if I couldn’t do it myself, I needed to speak up. That was all my responsibility, and I didn’t do it. And that’s especially true in a startup, where you need to be able to operate under uncertainty, and iterate your way towards solving problems. Ignoring it and hoping that someone else will tell you what to do is a recipe for failure.

 

2. I need to be around people who will challenge me

I actually spent the first three months of my time at Book In A Box living with Zach in Austin, on the same street as Tucker. We spent a lot of time together, and I drastically improved professionally and personally — I picked up the job quickly, I became a lot more effective, and I also lost 20 lbs and got in great shape.

It’s not a coincidence that all that happened at once (while NOT working remotely). That’s the power of being around people who challenge you. Not just associating with them, or talking to them via email, Skype, or Slack, but PHYSICALLY being around them. Eating dinner with them. Going to meetings. Sat at a desk across from them.

I know I should not work remotely (at least not full-time). I know for a fact that my next job needs to be in an environment where I am around other great people: role models, mentors, friends, and people who will challenge me and push me to be better. Not that they’ll do the hard work for me, but they’ll a) support me and motivate me and b) call me on my bullshit and make me realise when I’m not facing up to issues.

 

3. I am actually pretty smart, but that’s nothing without action

I actually recognised a lot of these issues in myself as they were happening. I knew what I needed to do to fix them. But I knew that it would be hard. And I didn’t think I needed to do it immediately.

So I put it off, and didn’t do it. Which is why I got fired.

This also happened with business issues. I would spot a problem, and think through a solution. I would think up the 5-6 steps I’d need to take to implement that solution, and solve the problem. Then I would congratulate myself on being smart enough to recognise a problem and think up a solution.

The missing piece, of course, was actually taking any action.

Tucker or Zach would often come to me later and say, “Hey — I’ve noticed this problem. Here’s a good solution though. Can you get that done?” It was often the same problem and solution I’d spotted myself, but hadn’t done anything about. Which meant that I started to get a reputation at someone who couldn’t really see things through, and get things done.

At the time I thought that was a bit unfair, but it’s 100% correct. Thinking through a problem is great, but the perfect solution you don’t implement is exactly the same as no solution at all.

 

4. All of these issues stem from a deep, deep fear of success

These other problems — failure to take ownership, the need to be around other people who will push me, and my failure to take action and solve problems — reflect one underlying condition: my deep, deep fear of success.

On the surface, fear of success sounds ridiculous. Think of the words that you associate with success: wealth, prestige, power, fame, accomplishments, satisfaction. All those words sound pretty great, right? Who on earth is afraid of success?

I am. I’m terrified of it.

I’m scared that I’ll get to the top of the mountain and all of a sudden, people won’t like me.

My parents won’t like me because I’ll have more money than they do. My girlfriend won’t like me because success will somehow change me. My friends won’t like me because they won’t be able to relate to me any more. Strangers won’t like me because they’ll resent my accomplishments.

I’m also scared that everyone I know and love won’t understand me any more.

When you’re talking to family or friends about your work, how many people say things like this:

  • “Can’t complain!”
  • “Same old, same old — boring, but I’m getting paid well.”
  • “It’s pretty easy, I honestly don’t know how I haven’t been fired yet!”

I’d guess it’s greater than 90% (at least for me). This is especially true in middle-class England, where we’re all humble, quiet, understated, and generally don’t like to make too much of a fuss.

Which means that if I succeed — if I even START to do the work I need to do to get to where I want to be — I know that I’ll be an outlier. Some people will judge me for that. Some people will criticise me. And some people won’t ever understand me.

That’s terrifying. And it’s exhausting, too. At first, it’s fun to be unconventional and get those envious looks, but when you’re faced with the difficult reality of the work it takes to be different, and the energy you need to keep going with it, it’s so much easier just to give up.

I remember when I first quit my old job to go work for Book In A Box, and someone very close to me said, “Well, if it doesn’t work out, you can always go back to being an accountant.”

That was one of the first things they said to me. Of course they were supportive as well, but that support was diluted by the constant reminder that it would be easier to fail, and go back to my rightful place.

Of course, it’s much better to fail now, early on, than it is to get to the top, and then fail.

Because that’s the other big fear. That I’ll achieve success, but won’t be able to cope with it, so I’ll fall back down to Earth. I don’t have faith in my ability to stay at the top once I get there. I’m afraid that I’d get everything I ever wanted — and then I’d lose it all again, and there’d be no-one to blame but me.

Then I’d have suffered the hard work, odd looks, and the long periods of not being understood, and it would all be for nothing.

I wouldn’t even have my comforting self-image of being destined for great things. If I try and fail, then I have to discard that. Then I’ll have nothing left but the voices in my head that say “I told you you would fail”, and dreams of what might have been.

Honestly, as much as it sucks to be fired, I’m still more afraid of what it takes to succeed.

 

The Aftermath

When I got fired, at first I was relieved. No more stress. No more anxiety.

Then I was angry, at myself. I had an incredible opportunity, and I wasted it.

Finally, over time, I accepted what had happened.

On reflection, I’m glad for the whole experience. I realised some deep issues about myself that I need to solve if I’m going to achieve what I want to achieve. It’s been 3 months since I got fired, and I haven’t solved all of these issues yet. But now I’m aware of them, I’ve accepted them, and I’m dealing with them — and I’m a better man for that.

Thanks to Kevin Espiritu, Zach Obront and Tucker Max for their feedback on early drafts of this post.

Want to turbocharge your career and boost your earnings? Check out my upcoming book, The Career Superpower.

Ask Yourself Why

Are you sure you know what you want?

Like, really sure?

Have you thought about WHY you want it?

There’s a problem-solving technique called The Five Whys. When you’re trying to get to the bottom of something, you just keep asking yourself, “Why?”, over and over again until you get to the root of the problem.

For example: if you’re trying to decide to quit your job and start a company.

Q. Why do you want to do that?

A. Because I’m bored at my job and I think a startup would be more interesting.

Q. Why?

A. Because I’m too good at my job and haven’t been challenged.

Q. Why?

A. Because I mastered the basics a long time ago, and the job hasn’t changed since then, so I’ve been stagnating.

Q. Why?

A. Because my boss hasn’t given me any new assignments or challenging projects.

Q. Why?

A. Because I haven’t asked her to, or told her that I’m feeling bored and unmotivated, so she thinks everything is fine.

Now we’re starting to get to the real issue. So maybe, rather than quitting your job to start a company, you should actually have a conversation with your boss to find more challenging work to do.

Keep asking Why until you get to the real core of the problem.

Want to turbocharge your career and boost your earnings? Check out my upcoming book, The Career Superpower.

How Michael Lewis writes such great books

I wish I hadn’t written what I wrote 3 days ago.

I wrote a post on The Power of Focus — how, when you concentrate on one thing, and one thing only, you get fantastic results.

That’s true, and I stand by it, but I missed a HUGE point that I should have made in that post.

I focused entirely on micro-focus. I completely missed macro-focus. And you need BOTH to produce fantastic work.

Micro-focus

Micro-focus is focus on the immediate task at hand, what’s right in front of you right now. Micro-focusing is what you do when you lock yourself away and shut off the wi-fi in order to write. It’s when you find a quiet place to read a book with no distractions. It means putting your phone away when you’re talking to someone. It’s doing deep work.

That’s what I was talking about in my last post. The fact that doing this kind of micro-focus produces fantastic results — better work, better conversations, more enjoyment. That’s all true.

What’s missing here is macro-focus.

Macro-focus

Macro-focus means that your actions over time also need to be focused — ideally on one project or long-term goal. It’s that old adage: you can have anything, but you can’t have everything.

So it means that rather than trying to build five businesses, you focus on one. Don’t try and learn French and the trombone at the same time. Don’t train for the Olympics while also trying to write a great novel — pick one or the other. And if you do pick the novel, then try and just write ONE novel at a time.

As Robert Greene says:

Conserve your forces and energies by keeping them concentrated at their strongest point. You gain more by finding a rich mine and mining it deeper, than by flitting from one shallow mine to another – intensity defeats extensity every time.

– Law 23: Concentrate Your Forces, The 48 Laws of Power

Now, that’s not to say that you can’t have multiple goals, or do lots of things in your life. You can. You just have to do them in sequence rather than all at once. Once you’ve built one business, sell it or hire someone to manage it, and build another. Write one book, and publish it, then build another. Or train for the Olympics. Whatever you want.

The combination

Let’s look at the different combinations of macro- and micro-focus.

The Focus Matrix

The real power comes when you can combine a macro-focus — a single, overarching goal — with the micro-focus necessary to achieve that goal.

Let’s look at Michael Lewis. However you want to judge success as a writer, he’s one of the best. Multiple New York Times best-selling books. Critical acclaim for the quality of his writing. Huge influence in his niche. And he’s probably made a ton of money.

Let’s take Flash Boys as an example of his process (because he talks about it in this interview, which I highly recommend). It started out as a potential magazine story for Vanity Fair, but when he interviewed a couple of people, he realised it had the potential to be a book.

So he went at it — hard. He spent a year interviewing Brad Katsuyama, the book’s main character. He talked to over a thousand high-frequency traders for information, for background, and for on-the-record comments. He did as much research as one person could do on this world. And then he spent the weeks and months to craft a fantastic manuscript.

That’s the macro-focus. One project, hard.

Now let’s look at the micro-focus. Imagine being interviewed by Michael Lewis for a book. Do you think he’s checking his twitter feed while he’s talking to you? No — partly because he doesn’t have twitter. Do you think he’s also watching the game on TV over your shoulder? No. He’s 100% in the room, getting the material he needs to get.

And when he’s writing, he’s writing. Here’s what he has to say about his process:

The day is not structured to write, and so I unplug the phones. I pull down the blinds. I put my headset on and play the same soundtrack of twenty songs over and over and I don’t hear them. It shuts everything else out. So I don’t hear myself as I’m writing and laughing and talking to myself. I’m not even aware I’m making noise. I’m having a physical reaction to a very engaging experience. It is not a detached process.

That’s micro-focus, applied to a macro-focused goal.

The end result? Michael Lewis has written not one but multiple fantastic, best-selling books over his career.

Want to turbocharge your career and boost your earnings? Check out my upcoming book, The Career Superpower.

How to turn a small opportunity into a big one: the parlay

My career so far has all been a gamble.

More accurately, it’s been a parlay — taking the winnings from one bet and wagering them on another bet, and so on, until your small initial stake compounds into something much greater.

The scary thing about a parlay is that you can’t see a clear path from start to finish. It’s a series of opportunistic, escalating bets over time.

When I left a safe, corporate job to join a startup, I was often asked two questions:

  1. What will you do if it doesn’t work out?
  2. What will you do if it does work out? What’s your career plan after that?

My answer to both questions was the same: I don’t know.

What I was betting on was that if it turned out well, I’d have a set of skills and experiences, combined with the money and personal network I’d need to do something. And being in an entrepreneurial environment, meeting interesting people doing interesting things, an opportunity was bound to come along sooner or later, and I’d be in a position to capitalise on it. The perfect parlay.

In reality, it didn’t work out. I was fired (more on that soon). But despite that, I still have a set of skills and experiences, as well as more money, more time, and more relationships than I did when I left the corporate world. So, even though I failed, I’m still in a position to take those resources and parlay them into something new which, over the past few weeks, I have done quite successfully (so far). Which is what I was aiming to do all along anyway. (So did I really fail?)

Until last week, I sort of realised what I was doing, but couldn’t explain it in any kind of rigorous framework. But that all changed last week with Venkatesh Rao’s fantastic tweetstorm. I can’t do it justice by explaining, it, so you should read the whole thing. But here was the most relevant excerpt for me:

1/ To parlay something into something else is to turn a small advantage into a big one via a sequence of unplanned, but not unanticipated, gambles. It is the essence of finding serendipity.

2/ In an environment shaped by exponential change — Moore’s Law or gene sequencing for example — parlaying is a survival skill.

3/ Parlaying is the opposite of planning. In planning you deliberately sequence near-certain things in advance, to create one future, and plan on breaking nothing along the way.

4/ In parlaying, you daisy-chain bets to create an expanding range of positive possible futures. You pick the most interesting bet at each stage, and expect things to break along the way.

5/ Agility is not just the best approach to parlaying, it is the only approach. The point of operating via iterative trial and error is to predictably create parlaying opportunities, not just fix errors or “test” things.

6/ You’ve heard the term “a rolling stone gathers no moss.” I like to think of agile parlaying as “a rolling snowball grows bigger.” Each pivot is potentially an opportunistic level-up of some sort, not just a course reset.

Like I said, I didn’t quite have the intellectual framework to think about it in these terms before I read this. But now that I read it, I recognise that that’s exactly what I was doing. I put myself in a position where I was exposed to serendipity, and along the way I was building the resources to take advantage of serendipity when it occurred. Unplanned, but not unanticipated.

Want to turbocharge your career and boost your earnings? Check out my upcoming book, The Career Superpower.

This equation could make you a star

Tim Ferriss and Cal Newport should have babies.

If you’re reading this, it means you have an internet connection, which means you already know who Tim Ferriss is. The author of the best-seller The Four Hour Work Week, he’s famously keen on productivity, eliminating useless activities, and generally accomplishing more while doing less.

Cal Newport is a Georgetown Computer Science professor and the author of several books, including one of my favourites, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, and his latest book Deep Work.

It’s in Deep Work that Cal reveals his formula for success — and it’s the same formula that Tim Ferriss arrived at, independently:

High-Quality Work Produced = (Time Spent) x (Intensity of Focus)

Let that sink in for a moment.

Even if you don’t have a maths background, you’ll probably notice that the right-hand side of this equation has two variables: (Time Spent) and (Intensity of Focus).

Producing high-quality work will bring you professional success — whether that means more sales, a promotion, winning awards. So by altering either the amount of time you spend or your intensity of focus, you can alter the amount of high-quality work you produce.

With me so far? Good.

In Deep Work, Newport argues that you should aim to eliminate distractions and therefore increase your intensity of focus, meaning that with the same amount of time, you can produce a higher level of output.

In The Four Hour Work Week, Ferriss argues that you should aim to eliminate distractions and therefore increase the intensity of your focus, meaning that in less time, you can still produce the same level of output.

Those are two different goals. Newport is concerned with achieving great career success. Ferriss is concerned (at least in The Four Hour Work Week) with maintaining your lifestyle but creating more free time.

But they’ve both hit upon the same formula, and realised that the key lies in increasing the intensity of focus.

Let’s admit it — it’s easy, even satisfying, to work long hours at a low level of intensity. You never quite challenge yourself, but you can still tell yourself the story that you’re “working so hard at the moment”, even if that means slowly reading and answering emails for 12 hours a day.

Working at peak intensity: that’s hard. It requires focus. Planning. Turning off your phone and locking yourself in a quiet room. And it’s tiring. Which is 95% of people don’t do it. Which is why there are such outsized rewards to be had if you can be in the 5% that do.

So now that you have this mental model to refer to, you can start to ask the right questions, and think about exactly what you should be doing.

  • What is my end goal?
  • What is the activity that will most effectively lead to this goal?
  • How much time do I want to dedicate to this activity?
  • What does high-intensity performance look like in this activity?
  • What do I need to do beforehand to make sure I can perform at that intensity, and how do I recover afterwards?
  • Is that level of intensity, for that amount of time, sustainable in the long-run?

Once you start to answer all of those questions, you start to see how exactly you should be spending your time in order to have the greatest impact.

Want to turbocharge your career and boost your earnings? Check out my upcoming book, The Career Superpower.

Force multipliers

I’m about to give you the keys to the kingdom.

There are certain cornerstone actions, routines and habits that, once in place, ripple out and have a positive effect in all areas of your life. Combined, they each reinforce each other, combining to have a huge impact on the quality of your life, and what you can accomplish.

I call them Force Multipliers.

1. Exercise

Being healthy and strong is great. In fact, being strong is one of the key ways to slow the ageing process. For that alone, you should exercise regularly. But you’ll also think more clearly. You’ll be less likely to suffer from things like depression. You have more energy and can be more productive. And you’ll become “the type of person who exercises“, making you more likely to eat better, save money, waste less time, and have a positive self-image. Plus, you’ll look better, which means you’ll make more money and you’ll get more attention from the opposite sex.

2. Eating healthily

Just like exercise, eating well is great because of the health benefits. Fat loss, muscle gain, more energy, less feeling sluggish for an hour after lunch. And on top of that: you’ll save money because you cook at home more. You waste less time browsing at the grocery store, or choosing off a restaurant menu, because you’re narrowing down the range of choices you have. (Should I get chips or chocolate? NEITHER!)

3. Living well below your means

Spending less than you earn is good for the obvious reason: that it prevents you from getting into debt and hurting your credit, paying money in credit card interest and overdraft fees, and so on. No arguments there. But there’s other advantages of having cash on hand. You can usually get a great deal on bigger purchases if you can offer to pay in cash, right there and then. You can take advantage of business opportunities that need a bit of capital up-front, or do things that have a smaller short-term payoff, but a big long-term payoff. You can afford to take a different job that might pay less, but makes you happier. You spend less time worrying about bills and juggling payments, freeing up mental energy to spend elsewhere. With money in the bank you’re less stressed, and you sleep better, so you become healthier.

With those three things in place, you’re giving yourself a great base to work from. A solid foundation in your life. And the great thing is that each one makes the others easier: they multiply together healthy, energised, strong, productive, and able to take advantage of opportunities when you see them.

 

Want to turbocharge your career and boost your earnings? Check out my upcoming book, The Career Superpower.

The false dichotomy

I know it’s tempting — indeed, fashionable these days — to view corporate jobs as “shackles”. Corporate workers are “drones”. There’s a perception that you’ll work 9-5 for 50 years, with two weeks vacation per year, and then retire, having never really lived. And that the only way to be happy is to quit and start your own company, or become a digital nomad, freelancing and travelling the world. It’s an idea popularised in The 4-Hour Work Week, and propagated by pretty much every online self-help writer ever since.

But it’s not true. It’s a false dichotomy.

If you are one of those in a corporate job, you’ll never see life as worth living if you frame it that way. Your life is the sum of all the small moments — so why are you carrying a cloud of negativity and anxiety around all day with you?

Look, if your job really sucks, and you hate it, and need to get out, then do it. Make the change.

BUT there is happiness and meaning to be found in work. Great colleagues can become life-long friends. You can take pride in doing the work that is in front of you, and doing it well. You can dive into your profession and seek to learn everything there is to know about it, develop your expertise, and then leverage that expertise into a better working situation (e.g. starting your own company, consulting, better jobs at other companies).

And don’t buy into the fallacy that corporate jobs suck, and remote, digital nomad jobs are amazing. That anyone working a normal job is a drone, and anyone doing their own thing is a groundbreaking entrepreneur.

I’ve met lots of entrepreneurs and remote workers — myself included — who are utterly miserable and lonely when they have to work alone.

I know scores of people who have worked in an office job their entire career, and take immense satisfaction and pride in their work, have meaningful relationships and a great family life. They’re happy people.

Yes, it’s more common to find happy entrepreneurs and miserable corporate types. But that’s not a predestinated fate. It’s what you choose to make of it.

Want to turbocharge your career and boost your earnings? Check out my upcoming book, The Career Superpower.

Are you a creator or a consumer?

I’m an information addict.

I have a regular pattern I follow every few months. I want to learn a new skill or a new hobby, so I instantly head over to Amazon and buy 3-4 books on that topic. On my bookcase right now, I have books on the basics of HTML, card magic, golf, screenwriting, motor racing, meditation, weightlifting, and about 10 other topics.

I usually subscribe to a bunch of blogs and podcasts too. I read all the most popular posts, and listen to the best expert interviews. If I’m felling really productive I might even make some notes in Evernote, or bookmark some pages in Delicious.

And yet, there’s always one thing missing: actual output.

I’ve coded very few websites. I know maybe 3 card tricks. I’ve never written a screenplay or competed in a real car race. I don’t know the exact number of times I’ve ever meditated, but it’s definitely less than 50.

Finding and consuming information is easy. It’s interesting. And for someone as curious as me, it’s usually pretty exciting too.

But it doesn’t actually accomplish anything. It’s pseudo-work. Intellectual masturbation.

It’s much more effective to create. To get stuck in and start making things — websites, golf shots, screenplays, whatever — and then one of two things will happen. You either realise that you’re not that interested in it, or you love it, and go really deep on it. That’s worth doing. Mindlessly consuming surface-level information is not.

Which one are you doing?

Want to turbocharge your career and boost your earnings? Check out my upcoming book, The Career Superpower.

Focus on the fundamentals

Spring, 1995. San Francisco. It’s a wet Saturday morning, and any sane person would wake up, look out at the weather, and swiftly decide to get back into bed for a couple more hours.

Jerry Rice isn’t one of those people.

Right now, Rice is feeling pretty good about life. He’s the star wide receiver of the San Francisco 49ers, and he’s coming off the back of winning Superbowl XXIX a couple of months earlier. In that game, he scored three touchdowns and caught 10 passes for 149 yards, despite separating his shoulder.

The 1994 season was one in which Rice racked up just under 1,500 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns. He became the all-time leader in touchdown catches, in his tenth season in a league where the average career length is just 3.2 years. He’s already had a career that marks him out as one of the best.

But Rice isn’t resting on his laurels. On that wet Saturday morning, he’s up and out at 7am. He’s lifting weights. He’s doing drills. He’s sprinting up a notorious local running route known only as “The Hill”. All told, he works out for 4–5 hours. And he repeats this workout 6 days a week. All summer long. With a separated shoulder.

And when he comes back for the 1995 season, it’s his best ever. Rice makes 122 receptions for over 1,800 yards and 15 touchdowns. After that he plays another 9 full seasons, playing almost every game, before retiring at the age of 42, having set a number of records that look unlikely ever to be broken. ESPN names him as the #2 NFL player of all time, and in 2010 he’s inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame.

*****

This looks like the classic tale of hard work leading to huge success. But it’s not. It’s much more interesting than that.

Yes, Rice worked hard — but he worked on the right things. His success came from a laser focus on the fundamentals.

Specifically, Rice makes sure that a) he’s in great physical condition; and b) he can run his routes inch-perfectly. These two things combined mean that he can play as many downs as possible, in every game of the season, for 20 years. And on every play, he’s exactly where he needs to be, when he needs to be. A perfect wide receiver.

Rice isn’t the only athlete to recognise the power of focusing on the fundamentals. The San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich does the same. Spurs Assistant Coach Ettore Messina says:

“[O]ne of the biggest things in coach Popovich’s philosophy is the “we can’t skip any steps” principle… At the beginning of the training camp we went over the fundamentals of offense and defense. Passing, catching, pivoting, sliding, moving without the ball — it was as if we were a junior team. That’s one of the major messages coach Popovich sends out to his players: techniques are much more important than tactics. You have to master the fundamentals.”

The result? The Spurs have won five championships under Popovich, and he holds the record for the most consecutive winning seasons in NBA history.

All from a relentless focus on the fundamentals. And the great news is that this doesn’t just apply to sports: you can do the same in your own career, and achieve huge results.

In fact, it’s much easier in a non-sporting context. You don’t have to work nearly as hard as Jerry Rice to see huge benefits. Think about it: he’s competing against other professional athletes who are also running routes, lifting weights, doing whatever they can to get better.

But your own colleagues or competitors: what are they doing? What percentage put any meaningful effort into improving their own ability? How many really, truly, deeply, have mastered the fundamentals of what they do? If you look closely, you’ll probably find that it’s actually not that many people.

That’s fantastic. It means that there’s a huge opportunity for you to stand out — if, and only if, you focus on the fundamentals.

(One other aside: think again about Jerry Rice’s workout. Note that in all his off-season workouts, he didn’t actually play a single down of full-contact football. So the way to get better at football isn’t repeatedly playing football, but rather mastering specific skills. Yet how many of us, when asked how we were making sure that we improved at our jobs, would say that we get better by doing our job over and over again?)

*****

Here’s an example from outside of sports. In Talent Is Overrated, author Geoff Colvin describes how Benjamin Franklin would take great essays, and write down the key point of each sentence. Then he’d re-write those sentences in his own words, and compare them to the original. He’d cut out each sentence, and put them in a drawer, leaving them for weeks until he had forgotten the original content, and then try and put them back together again to practice structure. He’d re-write essays in verse, and then re-translate them back into prose, again comparing them to the original. Again and again, he practised specific essay-writing skills. Over time, this deliberate practice turned Benjamin Franklin into an incredible writer.

And one more “knowledge-worker” example: me. Personally I’m not an essayist (although I play one on the internet). I’m an accountant. So what would my training scheme look like if I were to focus on the fundamentals?

Well, like many other professions, all accountants have to pass a series of exams to become qualified. But having passed them all, most people stop learning, never again consulting their textbooks.

Here’s an obvious win — I can take a few exercises from each of my textbooks (literally titled “Fundamentals of Accounting”) and run through them periodically. If I do one chapter from each of my textbooks at the start of each workday, that would only take about 15 minutes, but it would mean I could run through all of those textbooks in about 3 months — and then I could just start again from the beginning, always repeating these exercises and staying sharp.

The result: I would be able to run quickly through a trial balance and a list of adjustments, and create a balance sheet and profit and loss account, just using a paper and pencil. I’d be able to calculate variances, overhead allocations and absorption rates in my head. I could test myself on any number of technical definitions, and get the answers write every time. I can already do all of these things to a good standard, but if I practised, I would truly master them. I would have testable fluency in the basics.

(In fact, I could go even more fundamental, and run through all the maths exercises on Khan Academy to make sure that my mental maths ability is as sharp as it can be.)

That sounds incredibly simple and easy, and it is. But it’s a big win, because no-one else bothers to do it. It takes humility to admit that you need to brush up their skills at such a basic level.

That takes care of the conditioning aspect — the accounting equivalent of Jerry Rice’s hill sprints. But as well as running and lifting, he was also doing drills, and practising the exact routes he needed to be effective in the 49ers offense.

The equivalent for me would be:

  • to understand every aspect of my company’s balance sheet and income statement deeply, and how they interact and affect each other
  • to do the same with all our industry competitors
  • to be technically fluent on our accounting system and know every function, report, shortcut and display
  • to be a real Excel pro: again, understanding the majority of functions and formulae (not just the five common things that every accountant uses), know all the keyboard shortcuts, and be able to automate common tasks using macros or VBA

Again, none of these are particularly difficult or time-consuming: 30–60 minutes per day would be more than enough to master every one of these in fairly short order. It wouldn’t be five hours of intense workouts like Jerry Rice, but it would easily be enough to accelerate my ability far beyond where it currently is.

If you’re like me, it’s exciting to realise how little work this would be, and the huge impacts it could have on your career. I can’t wait to get started.

Further reading:

Want to turbocharge your career and boost your earnings? Check out my upcoming book, The Career Superpower.