The Average Paradox

The world’s most successful people tend to do things differently. Take any great artist/athlete/performer/entrepreneur and you’ll quickly see that they followed a different path than most of their peers which enabled them to achieve success and be unique.

Many of us want to be successful, to stand out and be above average. However, But being successful and standing out isn’t always easy, it means having the courage to do what you think is right even when it’s different than what almost everyone else is doing. Conformity brings comfort, which also is important. I came across a nice article that illustrated this point:

“We instinctively think we are above average. We don’t want to be average. Yet ironically, we want to be normal and have the same interests as most people do. We don’t want to be different and stand out. Having the same interests, routines, habits as everyone else ensures that we stay in the majority and are hence part of the ‘in-group’. But by design, we are setting up ourselves to be average.”

This describes what I like to call the average paradox. On one hand, our drive and focus on success means being exceptional and thus not just another average person. We want to succeed, do well and even stand out amongst the crowd.

 

However, we still want to be normal, and, have similar routines, and held to similar standards, which by definition, is average.

I have experienced this paradox myself. As a consultant, my job had a lot of ambiguity, even to the point where sometimes on a Friday I didn’t know where I needed to be the following Monday. In those moments, it’s easy for me to get stressed and think to myself, “if I only had a normal job..” The reality of that statement is that if I only had a normal job, I wouldn’t have gotten to do many of the things I really enjoyed about the job that I had!

There’s nothing wrong with being average. There’s also nothing wrong with striving for excellence. The only way around the average paradox is to pursue the things that are most important to our vision and values and acknowledge and accept the tradeoffs and opportunity costs that we must incur in pursuit of those values.

Being different is not always easy, but with patience and persistence, we can focus our efforts on becoming the person we want to be.
 

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Want to accelerate your career? Learn how to learn

About this time last year, I wrote about how companies like AT&T  are emphasizing the importance of learning on, during and outside the job for their employees as a means to compete in the digital age. They have recognized that the skills needed by the company and its employees to thrive in the future are not there yet today, and in order to compete they must adapt.

In a recent talk to college students at the University of Missouri St. Louis, AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson yet again touted the importance of learning, even urging students to retool and pivot after joining the workforce. He said, “I believe your skill set is two years in duration, max. Mine is two years in duration, max. I’m constantly retooling myself.”

 

Learning is a topic that is on the rise in the corporate world. According to research published by leading HR Analyst Josh Bersin, learning and development is one of the most important trends facing HR Executives this year. And while many companies are rolling out initiatives, whether it’s through courses like Udemy or in AT&T’s case, partnering with a college, I’m convinced the best results will come when each individual professional takes it upon themselves to identify and develop a learning plan to make sure they maintain and even stay ahead of the curve.

As a consultant, learning is a key driver to my success on the job. We are constantly being placed in new situations, new industries, new functions and new types of business problems that the only way we can adequately advise our clients is by forcing ourselves to learn and evolve our skillset.

Furthermore, as a result of the impact of technology and innovation, our clients are coming to us with problems that are more and more complex, interdisciplinary, and frankly, new and we have to learn in order to stay ahead of the curve to guide them through the process.

As someone who has made a conscious effort to continually learn throughout their career, I want to offer some actionable tips for how you can “learn how to learn” and develop in your career:

Become an Expert – In today’s knowledge economy, knowledge is power. The more knowledge and insight you can provide, the more valuable you can be to your team and organization.

One way to accumulate knowledge in a focused manner is to become an expert. That way, you can be the go-to person on a particular skill, issue, or idea on your team. First, you might already be on the path to becoming an expert based on your existing work experiences, so think about if there is anything you already are an expert in.

Next, a simple “Major/Minor” Framework can help you find other areas to be an expert in. For example, let’s say you work in Marketing, and specifically, within SEO and Blogging. In this example, your Major would be Marketing, and your Minor would be things like SEO, Social Media, blogging, and Google Analytics. From there, you can start building your knowledge in both your major and minor to eventually be seen as the Marketing/SEO/Social Media guru.

Look for the intersection points – Knowing your function or industry is important, but what’s also important is how your function or industry intersects with the broader organization and world. I call this, “playing at the edge.” If you can play at the edge, it forces you to not only understand your specific area of expertise at a deep level, but a few other adjacent areas. By applying your knowledge to other adjacent areas, you can expand your knowledge base but also, understand the bigger picture of how your area of expertise can either be applied to other areas, or how it impacts other areas.

For example, let’s say you work again in Marketing, but begin to study how what you do impacts the Sales team.  If you can understand how your SEO and content empower and drive sales, you can A) play a bigger role in working with the Sales team and B) produce better content for the sales team that helps win customers. This increases your own knowledge of marketing, helps you understand the broader impact of your work, and gives you more opportunities to engage with other areas of the organization, all of which are positive steps for your own career development.

Use Technology – The great thing about the internet is that everything, literally everything is on there. It’s literally never been easier to learn about something by using different digital tools and technologies that are made available. Platforms like Lynda.com, Udemy and Coursera are great resources. As are things like Twitter, blogs, websites and forums like Quora.  If you want to know how about the tools and apps I use to learn on a daily basis check out my post on how I learn to keep up with my job.

Read – The best writers and thinkers are often the best readers. It’s where they generate their ideas and insights. This tactic can work for you, in your quest to learn and develop subject matter knowledge. One way to do this is to configure your information diet. This consists of books, and/or articles on relevant topics and information, and should be consumed on a regular basis.

Talk to Others – Reading and learning on your own is great, but sharing ideas and putting your mind together with other intelligent but diverse groups of people is what will spur ideas and innovation in your head. Take the time to identify other people in your network who share your love of learning and find ways to talk and communicate with them. In some cases, you’ll want to talk about topics that are of importance to you, but in other cases, you may have to talk about topics that are not relevant to you. That’s okay! In fact, that sometimes can be really helpful as it can help you make connections that you would have never come up with if you spoke with someone who was as familiar with the topic as you. The key here is finding people who are as eager to learn and engage as you are.

Earlier this year, LinkedIn studied the career paths of executives in an attempt to identify common characteristics of those who made it to the C-Suite. One of their conclusions was that the people who made it to the C-suite demonstrated a broad and diverse range of skills and experiences as opposed to a narrow and focused view, or, said another way, those who focused on continuous learning, growth and development were the ones who made it to the top.

It’s been well documented that learning is good for your health. It also might be the thing that saves your career.

Further Reading

Want to Succeed in your Career? Learn how to Pivot

In July 2010, I began my first job out of college. Armed with my degree, work ethic and optimistic attitude I was ready to tackle the world of management consulting and ready to tell C-Suite Executives exactly how they should be making decisions (Spoiler Alert: It doesn’t exactly work like that…)

While I received great support and training, I constantly felt overmatched and overwhelmed. Despite my attitude, college degree and work ethic, I was constantly lost with a deer in a headlight look as I struggled with understanding what was going on and the pace of a demanding and stressful profession. Furthermore, while work was challenging, so was adjusting to “real-life living.” I had my own apartment with 2 roommates and while I still saw many of my friends life was different. I quickly got stuck in a rut and didn’t know what to do.

I realized I needed to do something about this so I did what any resourceful millennial would do. I turned to Google, and I came across a website  called Life After College (I think I may have searched literally for that term!) which was run by the one and only Jenny Blake. Jenny needs no introduction, but as an author, business strategist, former Googler and now author of the book Pivot, Jenny’s blog was incredibly helpful to me in 1) helping me realize what I was experiencing was normal and 2) giving me thoughts and insights onto how to move forward.

 

As I moved through the highs and lows of those first few months Jenny’s blog posts (and eventual book) were great resources to helping me adjust to the working world and real-world. Furthermore, Jenny was kind enough to respond to a bunch of my questions and I even was able to provide her some feedback on her book Making Shit Happen. Many of Jenny’s thoughts and insights were central to my own development, so when I heard last year she was working on a new career related book I was excited to see what she would come up with.

After finally getting a chance to read the book I’m incredibly impressed 1) with the content and message (will get to that in a minute) but 2) the introspection and authenticity she brought to the book as she herself has faced numerous pivots in her own career. The content in the book is useful and powerful but it has so much more gravity knowing the author has actually lived and breathed it.

So what is the book about?

In today’s uncertain world, jobs, careers and businesses are changing constantly across every industry which means we as individuals are constantly thinking about our immediate next step. Amidst this change, how can we as professionals be more agile in our careers? How do we plan our next move in a way that leverages our strengths and skills and applies them to new opportunities? The book aims to answer this question through the Pivot Framework.

It’s must read for anyone who is in need of thinking through their career, and I’m going to outline a quick summary of the book and how it can help you reimagine and pivot in your career.

TLDR: Buy and Read Jenny’s book Pivot and use the framework to get started on whatever your next step might be. This book is especially great for:

  • People who are thinking about a new job or career
  • People who are stuck in a rut at work, and need help identifying how to move forward
  • People who have an idea for a side-hustle, or are pursuing a side-hustle, and need help bringing it to fruition

What is a Pivot?

A Pivot is “a methodical shift in a new, related direction based on a foundation of your strengths and what is already working.” In an interview with Career Expert Dan Schawbel, Jenny describes a pivot as follows: Think like a basketball player: one foot stays firmly planted with the other scans for opportunity. Then start passing the ball around the court, or piloting with small experiments to test the waters or new direction

Below is a quick summary of the Pivot Framework

Stage 1: Plant – Double-down on existing strengths, interests, and experiences What are you currently enjoying most? What is working best? What is success one year from now?

Stage 2: Scan – Find new opportunities and identify skills to develop without falling prey to analysis-paralysis and compare-and-despair  Who do you admire? Who can you talk to? What new skills interest you?

Stage 3: Pilot – Run small experiments to determine next steps – What experiments could you run in the next month? What about next 6 months?

Stage 4: Launch – Take smart risks to launch with confidence in a new direction

 

Pivot Method Benefits

In my work as a career coach, I often find that many people come to me with enough knowledge that they want to make a change but they struggle with a strategy and execution plan to make it happen. Jenny’s Pivot Framework is both – a high-level method that guides you in the right direction along with actionable tactical steps to help you move through a process of discovery. Strategy without execution is meaningless. But tactics without a strategy is also troublesome. The Pivot method is both.

Another asset to the Pivot Framework is the focus on self-reflection and analysis. In order to get to where you want to go you have to know A) where you are B) who you are and C) where you want to go. The Pivot Framework helps people answer all of these questions to the best of your ability. It helps you understand your strengths, and how you can leverage them into a new potential path. Even if your Pivot does not end how you envisioned, you will come away with increased self-awareness about your strengths and interests, and how those can translate into potential new opportunities.

Lastly, the Pivot framework is great for identifying actionable tests and experiments to run to test out your hypotheses around paths to pursue. Taking major leaps can be daunting and counterproductive.What the Pivot method does is not too different to the concept of agile software development – let’s develop something, test it, learn from it and move forward. This bite sized approach can help us try before we buy, but also de-risk things and in some cases, avoid paths that don’t pass the smell test.

Key Messages

Move From your Strengths – Understanding and cataloguing your strengths is a key exercise in self-reflection but also essential before making any kind of move. In order to get to where you want to go, you need to know who you are today, and understanding your strengths is a key part of that. Furthermore, sometimes we we feel in a rut or when we need to make a change we often associate that with feeling less than, or that we have a perceived weakness. In reality, we just need to re-think how we can re-apply our strengths to other opportunities.  Jenny writes, “The opportunity now is to surface your strengths so that you will be ready and primed to pivot when an opportunity knocks.”

Build First, then your courage will follow – Taking action on a new idea or direction can be difficult or scary. Many of us will want to “de-risk” as much as possible before jumping into a new opportunity. The challenge is that it can leave you paralyzed, or kill any momentum you have from taking that next step. Instead of waiting, Jenny reminds us that “courage will not arrive in full before you launch, it will appear afterward.”  This can seem daunting but even taking small action will bring additional courage to help you make progress.

Continuous Pivoting – My Mother worked for the same company for the entire length of her career, which is a bit unheard of in these changing times. Additionally, Progress (and careers) are not always linear. Sometimes to move vertical you need to move horizontal.  Some of you have already made pivots while others will be making them soon. Regardless, there is a good chance that this next pivot is one of many that you’ll make over the duration of your career. If change is the only constant, The Pivot method can help you get better at managing it.

 

My Own Pivots

One of the reasons why I enjoyed the book is because it’s absolutely relevant to my own professional career. While I have more or less worked for the same company throughout my entire professional career, I’ve already made a number of pivots. For example:

  • About a year into my time at the firm, I saw there was another group which was doing projects in a topic I knew about and was interested in. In order to do more of those projects, I made my business case to leadership to transfer into the group, which was approved
  • While I was in that group, I started realizing that innovation especially digital technology was going to be a huge opportunity. I started working with senior leaders on a side project, and eventually helped create a new group that focused on digital consulting, which is now one of our fastest growing groups in our organization
  • After developing a diverse set of core skills, I decided I wanted to increase my learning and development by going to business school and furthering my career options and potential, and left consulting to for my MBA at the University of North Carolina.
  • While in School, I focused on Marketing and Innovation, and decided to try an internship in Product Marketing at a tech company (Salesforce) and ultimately decided to return back to consulting
  • After living my entire life in the east coast, I decided I wanted to see other parts of the United States, and moved to San Francisco

While I’ve made quite a few pivots in my career I expect there will be more to come. And As I reflect upon those changes, the process I used to figure out where I was and where I wanted to go next nicely mirrors the Pivot method that Jenny outlines in the book. I am one of many who have benefited the self-reflection and direction that the Pivot method provides!
We are in a time of unprecedented change across all aspects of society, and this is especially true when it comes to jobs and careers. The idea of working for one company or one type of job for the entirety of your career is no longer practical. Many of us will have many jobs, work for many companies, or have many careers. The only constant will be change itself, and while there will be plenty of ambiguity fear and insecurity, the Pivot method can help you navigate the complexity and spot opportunities in your life and career.