The great violinist

It’s Friday afternoon. It’s raining. After summer arrived with a sudden vengeance this week, this is rather pleasant, despite the rainy monstrosity that was May. 

The familiar sound of the guy two houses up talking on his phone carries through to me, pierced by the occasional ringing of bottles, as the glass recycling truck makes its way around the neighbourhood. 

I’m thinking about writing more regularly. Hence this post I suppose. Putting thoughts down on paper. So that they’re real, tangible. I often find myself in the middle of a work day, just staring out of the window in thought about something very random. Sometimes not so random. 

Today was no different. As it often does, my mind ventured into the realm of my own career, and what the next five to ten years had in store. I’ve also spent an unreasonable amount of time lately wondering what I’m truly good at. What are my natural abilities? How well do I even know this?

I was in someone’s house the other day, and they had this old vintage violin. Just sitting there like an ornament. I wanted to pick it up, but I dared not. It looked quite expensive. But it did make me realise that I’d never held a violin in my life. 

In terms of talent I could be the greatest violinist in the world. Probably not. Definitely not. 

But I’d never know, would I? And then I thought of all these parallel universes looking at us. Doorways and pathways untravelled. Talents unfound. 

Do we have a natural ability to sense what our true talents are? Or is it entirely dependent on us trying it out? It’s scary to think of what we might be missing out on. 

So much of life is just reaching out to something in front of you and hoping it works. Following some perceived north star, if you’re lucky. While seas crash around us we come into this life and throw the dice, hoping for the best. Living in mud huts while the ghosts of mansions cast shadows all over.

The rain’s still coming down outside. And I’ll keep wondering about this.

Four mistakes to avoid when choosing a career

Leading up to September, many thousands (possibly millions) of learners in the UK and around the world will be making decisions around which field of study to pursue in college or university. For learners going through the clearing process in the UK around August, the pressure increases slightly as quick decisions are required around career and institution. 

I suppose it’s easy in the heat of decision making to think along the lines of “Well, it’s just a course, it’s not my life.” But is it? The degree or programme you choose ultimately decides your initial employment opportunities. Then once in a job, your employment and daily routine of employment influence your livelihood, wellness and general happiness. Through a couple of quick Google searches it seems generally accepted that around 30% of adult life is spent working. So in many respects that qualification isn’t just a qualification, it becomes a large aspect of your life. 

I suppose the other reason I feel passionately about this is because finding the right career can largely be an expression of who you are. An extension of your true self applied daily to your tasks. Getting into the wrong career on the other hand, can be somewhat oppressive. Expression vs oppression. That’s why the choice is so big. 

Thinking back on some of my own experiences, and having worked within education providers for a number of years, I thought I’d put a few thoughts down on this to help young people make the right choices. 

Specifically, I want to highlight some of the mistakes you can easily make when looking for a career path. There are four very clear potential mistakes. 

Basing your decision entirely on passion

It’s important to feel strongly about what you do. Some people are lucky enough to have a real deep rooted passion for their career choice. But passion for a certain path can blind you from some glaring issues. 

Like all decisions, choosing a career needs a combination of the rational and the emotive. Underwater basket weaving might be your thing, but the real world demand for this profession should be a guide to your thinking. That, and maybe the lack of underwater weaver millionaires out there. 

Passion is a dangerous beast. Not only because it can cloud your judgement, but because it can be very temporary. It can burn out. Be extinguished. Die. 

A better rule to follow is probably more along the lines of what you’re actually good at and weighing that up against demand. It’s about finding that sweet spot between three things – what you can do well, whether there’s actual opportunities in it, and whether you can tolerate doing it for years. 

Even if you don’t necessarily love a certain vocation, if you’re good at it this builds confidence. In my experience confidence is an important part of long term happiness. And of course, if you’re good at something, rising to the top of that field is a little easier. 

Doing it because others are

I suppose I made this mistake in some ways. I went into university studying an accounting degree – with the aspiration of becoming a chartered accountant. This decision becomes more absurd to me as the years pass. 

In my high school in Port Elizabeth, South Africa around the early 2000’s there was this weird popularity around chartered accounting. I use the term “weird” because it’s strange to look back now at how many young people felt accounting was what they wanted to do with their lives. No offense to accountants. 

Maybe it was because we didn’t know what the hell else we wanted to do, so it became a bit of a default for many. Maybe because the hallowed title of chartered accountant, although far off on the horizon, was a promise of a hefty salary and lifestyle we dreamed of. Consequently the term “chartered accountant” was always a revered one. 

I was lucky enough to be able to switch degrees after one semester to something I was far more interested in – marketing. With a clever enough re-shuffle of modules I was still able to finish within three years. Some aren’t so lucky, and the process of changing qualifications can cost an entire year. That’s an entire year of earnings potential, job experience etc. 

The bottom line is that following the crowds is never a good idea. Particularly with career choice. This is one time in your life where you really do need to think as an independent individual. Who are you? What’s right for you? What your mates are doing shouldn’t come into the equation at all. In a few years they may not even be your mates anymore. 

Friendships that have run their course can be discarded easily. Bad career choices stick with you a little longer. 

Getting into a career without a solid understanding of it

I had a friend in my first year of university who started studying law. But he just didn’t seem the type. As the year drew one I could tell he liked it less and less. Eventually he just dropped out of it, and started year two in a completely unrelated field. Talking to him over a few beers one night I realised just how misinformed he was. 

His idea of being a lawyer was the glam courtroom stuff you saw on Law & Order, or LA Law or something like that. You know, the hotshot attorney making impassioned, eloquent arguments in front of a jury and packed courtroom. 

I couldn’t believe it – how could someone be this naive? Maybe because my own father was an attorney, I knew what it was and what it certainly wasn’t. But even if that weren’t the case, I’d surely know that the legal profession is largely an unglamorous one, filled with paperwork, contracts and documentation. 

Due diligence is key here – excuse the appropriate legal term. It’s more important to see the gritty underside of a certain career rather than the glamorous public idea of one. The internet should have all of this if you search well enough. Even better would be using your networks to talk to people in roles. And don’t ask them what they do, ask them what a typical day looks like. 

Asking someone what they do is like asking for a highlights reel. Asking what their typical day looks like will get you closer to the good and the bad. The exciting and the mundane 

Ignoring trends

The nature of “work” and its roles within society is changing quicker than ever before. That is such a clichéd statement, I can’t believe I wrote it. It’s always been a bit of a given. But Covid is changing the way we interact with the world, and each other – particularly in the work space. On top of all this, technology continues to surge forward, embracing AI, crypto and all kinds of new technologies – some gimmicky, some no doubt here to stay. 

When I studied marketing around 2004/2005, the term “social media” literally didn’t exist. Blackberries, now outdated and uncool mobile phones, were still just fruit, and nothing else. Facebook didn’t exist. Twitter was still just the sound of birds chirping. SEO, Apps and content marketing? What on earth is that? 

In the space of 15 years, I’ve seen the concept of marketing become something completely different. The great digitisation of marketing has led to the emergence of a number of new job titles, roles and careers. In other industries job titles have disappeared. What are compilers of the old yellow phone books doing nowadays? 

The internet is full of trend reports on careers – what’s becoming obsolete and what will come into higher demand. And as with everything in life, even if you don’t follow the road signs, make sure you take note of them. Who knows, those two skills you’re really good at could be key in a trending or high potential career route. 

Even taking all the above into account, you could still make the wrong decision. And that’s ok. It really is. A study from a few years ago in the UK suggested that half the working population in the UK are in roles unrelated to their field of study. 

It’s life after all, and nobody should be wedded to a career forever if it’s not working for them. Sometimes you learn most by making wrong decisions. But in your first ten years of work, it really does help if you’re doing something you’re good at. 

And if you’re going to spend good money and valuable years going through college or university, it might as well be worth it.

If you’re going to try

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I watched the movie Factotum a couple of months ago. It’s based on a Charles Bukowski novel. Matt Dillon does a surprisingly good job of playing a young Henry Chinaski, Bukowski’s alter ego, as he goes job to job, trying to make it through life while attempting to build a writing career. The film ends off with the famous Bukowski quote about sticking to your dream through thick and thin.

“If you’re going to try, go all the way. Otherwise, don’t even start. This could mean losing girlfriends, wives, relatives and maybe even your mind. It could mean not eating for three or four days. It could mean freezing on a park bench. It could mean jail. It could mean derision. It could mean mockery–isolation. Isolation is the gift. All the others are a test of your endurance, of how much you really want to do it. And, you’ll do it, despite rejection and the worst odds. And it will be better than anything else you can imagine. If you’re going to try, go all the way. There is no other feeling like that. You will be alone with the gods, and the nights will flame with fire. You will ride life straight to perfect laughter. It’s the only good fight there is.”

These lines seem to have stuck with me since then. Maybe because I’ve slowly come to understand the power of playing the ‘long game’. Or maybe it made me think of myself. Here I am, stuck in career that no longer really appeals to me. Often I think back on the last ten years, wondering why I hadn’t just started pursuing a different, more enjoyable direction in life sooner. Something like writing, for example. If I did I might have found myself in a much more favourable position right now. Perhaps even on the verge of doing it for a living.

But life doesn’t work in hindsight. It works in the moment. And when you stack multitudes of moments on top of each other, you find life’s moved on and you haven’t. Well, not exactly as much as you wanted to.

While I can’t encourage the lack of eating for three or four days, or sleeping on a park bench, there’s a vital lesson in these words for any young person. Any person at all, for that matter. Or any company.

About ten years ago I became friends with a young guy who had started as a creative intern at the ad agency I worked for. By this time he’d established himself as a rising star in the creative and design department. I liked his sense of humour, and we knew how to have a good time.

But what always stood out about him was his sheer passion for advertising. He lived and breathed it. He spent endless hours on websites that exhibited great advertising. He knew the ins and outs of the industry. He devoured content around advertising awards shows. He loved it all.

By the time I left the ad agency a couple of years later he was at creative director level. I moved cities and we lost touch completely. Through friends, Twitter and LinkedIn I stayed loosely informed of his career path, which seemed to just grow and grow. From humble Port Elizabeth in South Africa, to creative director in large UK agencies. The last I heard about a month ago, he had just started at a world famous agency in New York City as a creative director.

I was happy for him. When I heard the news I couldn’t help but reflect that when he started at the ad agency we met at years before, I was considerably more senior to him. Yet in the space of a decade he’d surpassed me. He’s massively talented, yes. But at the heart of it I knew there was something deeper. He loved what he did. He had a clear picture in his head of what he wanted to achieve. Of this I have no doubt. From day one back in the agency a decade ago, he had a long game.

It’s worth telling another story of a friend of mine back in Johannesburg, South Africa. His wife has a high level executive job, which affords him the chance to work for himself. Here’s the thing . . . he’s good at everything. Well, almost everything. I’m not exaggerating either.

He cooks majestically. He can make a gourmet meal out of nothing. He could probably fix any electrical issue in your house. He’s a master of sound and speaker installations. He’s an excellent sound engineer, and even plays instruments fairly well. He knows carpentry, and could probably put together pretty much anything you wanted. In addition to this he knows how to fish, how to hunt, how to boat. He could skin an animal and cure the meat better than a butcher.

He’s dabbled in business in some of these areas. Yet for all his expertise, nothing has ever taken off. Often something he was heavily into would be forgotten six months later. He drifts from one thing to the next, all of which he is very capable, hoping something sticks. Hoping for a magic moment, when the money starts pouring in.

It never does. His situation hasn’t really changed from when we met him back in 2012. It’s a pity because I like him, and he’s good at so much. But he’s never played the long game.

Then there’s the story of the company I joined when I left the agency I spoke of. They ran a group of colleges around the country. No company is perfect, and neither were they, but I loved working for them. They were decent, down to earth people. They gave me a healthy dose of accountability, and I generally had fun while there. I badly wanted the company to ‘win’ and grow exponentially. But it never happened. We never grew anywhere near as much as I wanted us to, and at times we struggled. After five years I felt I’d outgrown much of the company and left for a bigger name.

Looking back now I sometimes wonder what held us back. Why couldn’t we grow like we wanted to? We had small budgets, yes. But we had a decent footprint and access to a large market. Our product was well developed and very relevant. Our campuses were well equipped and clean.

But we never stuck to anything. And because we never stuck to anything, we weren’t known for anything. Every year we seemed to latch onto a new direction in terms of what we stood for. One year it revolved around technology, then it revolved around delivery model. Then rested on appealing to a corporate market. There was never a defined sense of “This is who we are and this is what we’ll be known for” – that ingrained vision that you stand by, even in the face of one or two flat years while you build. It always seemed to be a moveable feast. No long game.

How many other companies fall into this trap? My guess is many. Company strategy is essentially an incredibly simple thing. Decide on a direction that makes market sense and that is in line with company strengths, and stick to it. Yet this seems incredibly difficult for many companies. Playing the long game doesn’t come naturally to us humans. New managers come in and want to make their mark. They want something visible to justify themselves, so the long game is often the casualty.

The most successful companies generally played the long game . . . and won. 

Anyone who knows Bukowski’s story knows why that quote of his has so much relevance. Essentially Bukowski played the ultimate long game. For decades he suffered through life, trying to make it as a writer. Through hardships, poverty, failed jobs and bad living, he never stopped writing. Finally he got his break in the depths of middle age, and went on to be of the most famous American poets of the 20th century. He truly fought the long fight for his passion. 

I myself sit at 35, regretting that I haven’t played the long game. I too am guilty of starting things and never progressing. Yet here I am. It’s not too late. It never its. But I know now more than ever that for people and companies alike: if you’re going to try . . . go all the way.

The big things about small talk

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I hate small talk. One of the worst possible torture treatments you could hand me would be to put me in a room with strangers for a whole day and ask me to make small talk with them. Over the years I’ve come to avoid it as much as possible.

Extroverts won’t really understand, but as an introvert, that act of making conversations with a bunch of unknowns is a taxing one. It’s not to say that as introverts we can’t do it. Indeed, sometimes introverts make the best conversationalists. It just sucks the energy out of us, and leaves us drained.

Yet it’s everywhere, isn’t it. Being fairly new to a job and sitting down in the lunch area with colleagues. Weekend barbecues with a bunch of new people. Weddings. Work functions. All occasions that at times have made me roll my eyes and wish for home in the past. Going to a kids party, you’re forced to engage with those around you in meaningless chit chat. People you’re likely to never see again. So you think, what’s the point? Yet there you are, asking the questions you need to ask to fill the terrifying silences. What work do you do? What area do you stay in? How crazy has this weather been? How long have you been in this city? How good was the rugby last weekend? Bleh.

There’s something about the act that strikes me as . . . insincere. Basically feigning interest in someone just to get through a certain occasion and to avoid awkward silences. My stance is typically along the lines of me feeling like I don’t care enough about people to want to know the little things about their lives. I’m just . . not . . . that . . . interested. But then things changed a bit.

With 2019 came a great deal of self-reflection. A lot of it, I suppose, was due to changing countries and trying (at times) to fit into new work environments and cultures. I started realizing that I was perhaps a little too “in my shell” so to speak. Over time I suppose I’ve embraced this contrarian stance to small talk a little too much. With all of this in mind some realisations slowly hit me. I watched people. Successful people. I took note of one thing in particular – how at ease they were with just talking.

I reached a simple conclusion that I need a change of mindset about this. For three primary reasons:

  1. It’s the basis for all human connection

Humans are social animals. That applies even to us introverts of this world. We need connection, and that sense of belonging. Yet the only way to reach that point is to start by small talk. There are obviously some people you never really build a sense of rapport with. Often they’re about as interesting as a government issued tax guide. But with some people, after chatting for a while you find you click in some ways. Yet you only find that out through trading some light conversation.

It’s more than that. Successful people seem to have a knack for small talk, and using it to lead them where they want to go.

Great sales people have perfected the art of finding rapport, which ultimately builds trust and connection. Landing the job you want often depends on how well you come across regardless of your interview questions. This depends on how well you hold your own in conversation. Charm is something you hone over time through conversation. It’s almost impossible to turn it on and off.

To find an ideal romantic partner for yourself, you have to be able to engage in small talk. Men, in particular who often shoulder the responsibility of the first move in a potential relationship generally fare better if they’re able to be funny and engaging in the arts of small talk. Again, this requires practice, and learning the hard way.

  1. There’s something to learn from everyone

The best way to become a better conversationalist is to listen better. It sounds counterintuitive but by listening more you pick up on the interesting things someone says. And yes, there is something to learn from everyone.

It could be an interesting world event you never knew about. It could be a piece of gossip you were out of the loop on. It could be a bit of parenting insight that makes you think Hmm, I should try that. It could be news of a new online service you’re interested in. And so on.

Sometimes, in the right circumstances people give away a little too much. Alcohol does that. So the unfortunate curse I have of a high tolerance to alcohol has resulted in one or two interesting experiences. I can drink a bottle of wine and still have all my wits about me. Some people have two glasses and lose all inhibition in conversation.

A few years ago I was new to a company. In celebration of my arrival, the big boss hosted an evening at his house with a host of key staff. I got into a conversation with a woman in her 30’s who, it turns out, was the head of IT. Or something like that. After giving me the inside scoop of the company and how to handle certain personalities, she proceeded to tell me how tantric sexual practices were saving her marriage.

Not that I’d use this type of information against anyone, but often having the patience to stay in a conversation with someone leads to some interesting insights about company culture, company leadership styles and so forth.

What about that annoying guy who’s just cringe worthy? Well, perhaps there’s something to learn from him too. Even if, like David Brent in The Office, it’s merely to remind you of what you don’t want to be.

  1. For introverts, talking is a skill that needs continual practice

It isn’t like riding a bike. If you want to be great at communication, you have to work at it, continually. I’ve been guilty at times in the past of going into my shell and avoiding talk as much as possible. Understandable, isn’t it? Yet whenever this has happened I’ve noticed a marked decline at how well I communicate. Is it just me, or is this a universal human truth? Or, more likely, this is true of us introverts.

If I spend an entire day talking to people or doing presentations, by the end of the day the ease at which I’m talking is remarkable. It stuns even me. However, if I were to spend a week at home with no company, my communication skills would suffer. I’d be tripping over my sentences. My pitch would be poor. There’d be a faulty connection between my brain and my words.

Embracing opportunities to talk to people helps keep your conversation skills sharp. Some people are natural talkers, but many are not. For many, like myself, it’s a skill that needs constant sharpening.

 

What choice do we have but to deal with people in this life? Might as well become as good as possible at talking to them. Some things in life just can’t be avoided. Small talk is one of them.

I’m not suggesting that I’m suddenly going to love engaging in small talk. My natural instinct will still be to avoid it. Yet part of me now knows it is something to be embraced (sort of). What’s the worst thing that can happen?

We’re human. We need connection. We need . . . things. To make things happen and build our own success sometimes we have to do what is not entirely comfortable.

I’ll drag myself to work on this in the coming year. Let’s see how it goes.

Until next time

Stay sceptical folks.

The positive power of envy

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Envy – commonly regarded as a negative emotion which leads to dissatisfaction and ill feeling. In religious practices, we are taught the envy is a negative force to be avoided. In the Christian Bible envy is spoken of many times as something one should be careful of. “Do not covet” is of course the most famous of these teachings. In Buddhism the concept is similarly frowned upon. The Buddha quotes “”Do not overrate what you have received, nor envy others. He who envies others does not obtain peace of mind.”

I suspect the religious teachings were there to ensure that people didn’t start resenting each other or moving further away from idea of “Love Thy Neighbour”. Envy, it seems to me, can be a positive force which leads to an aspirational mindset or a negative force which leads to jealousy. Such is the problem with many religious teachings in that they see the worst of mankind rather than the best. It is very much up to the individual on how you want to channel envy.

There’s a huge difference between saying “I want that” and “I hate you because you have that”. We see this issue play out in political economic rhetoric, where some groups are insistent on the idea of taking wealth away from others rather than having the philosophy of trying to attain the wealth level of those they despise.

Of course, it goes without saying that gratitude for what we have is something we should all be more cognisant of. I myself am guilty of forgetting this, and have moments when I’m reminded of everything I have. But it is possible to be grateful for what we have as well as wanting certain things that others have. For an ambitious person who wants success, envy is a good thing.

This extends to all areas of our lives. It’s perfectly ok to look at the chiselled abs and defined biceps of a Men’s Health cover model and say ‘Yea, I want to be that guy’. It’s ok to look at your ultra-confident, all knowledgeable boss and say, “I want to be him”. We need these figures as clear guides as to what we want to become. There is a movement to make these cover models more realistic and show models with their natural flaws. I’m not so sure I agree. I tend to think we need to see perfection to motivate us, create envy, and spark us into attempting to achieve it.

Around December and January last year over the holiday I stayed in a far more affluent suburb than the one where I live. I remember going for long walks in the afternoons down streets I wasn’t familiar with, looking with great interest at beautifully designed big houses in quiet, tree shaded avenues. Instead of staring at these houses with indifference or resentment, it gave me a feeling of immense aspiration. I wanted a house like this. I therefore wanted a career that would grant me access to a house like this. It reminded me of what I wanted. I felt more motivated than I had in months.

A look at communist nations in the 1900’s further proves my point. One of the primary downfalls of communist attempts goes beyond economics. Those countries eventually resulted in an environment where there was nothing to aspire to. There was very little opportunity for envy, and the results of this were plain to see. When you take away man’s ability to want, your rip the beating heart out of society.

If we sometimes find ourselves with a lack of drive and motivation, I would suggest reminding yourself of all the things that you want or want to be. Want to get in shape? Look at magazines and Instagram posts of hot people working out. Want become a great presenter? Watch Ted Talks. Want to be a good leader? Learn from the likes of Peter Drucker and Jim Collins. Want to write better? Read Hemingway. These are just examples. The bottom line is, find people you want to be. It’s ok to envy their abilities – let the envy fuel you. Then go be them, with your own flavour.