Tag Archives: work

Reflecting on Leaders

Reflect on past and current leaders you have interacted with. Identify and describe the top three positive leadership characteristics you have observed – and the top negative characteristics you have observed.

Top three positive characteristics

– optimistic attitude

The best leaders and managers I’ve worked with have been optimistic. They may be stressed, or have a million things to deliver and not enough time, but they keep their composure, remain light-hearted, and exhibit confidence that things will get done, and the world won’t end. They don’t spend all their time talking about how impossible tasks are, or complaining about the workload to people who can’t change it.

– listening, listening, listening

To really engage with the people around them, the great leaders I’ve worked with have relied on being available, being open to ideas, and listening to everything their employees have to say. They don’t just want to know how projects are going, they want to know how life is going, what you think about the new artwork in the hallway, and if you’ve already eaten lunch yet today.

– persistently trying to improve

The great leaders I’ve worked with don’t settle. They didn’t reach a plateau in their project or career and decide that was enough. They treat all accomplishments and failures alike, as opportunities and experiences to learn from, build and grow. They’re life-long learners who infect everyone around them with their curiosity, and they always strive to do work better than they did it the last time.

 

Top three negative characteristics

– delegating work without understanding it

Bad leaders and managers think that the only step to solving a problem is giving it to someone else. Once they’ve successfully delegated a responsibility, they don’t care to hear anything about it until it’s finished, and once it is, they’ll take responsibility for it, without ever understanding what the solution to the problem was.

– being ‘too busy’ to say hello

The worst way for leaders and managers to engage with colleagues is to only open conversations when meetings and calendars mandate that they need to. They project an attitude of distance from everyone around them, and create obstacles to communication. They may exacerbate the problem by being friendly only with people they consider to be ‘higher up’ than them, without spending time building relationships with those lower on the ladder.

– relying on past performance to justify current position

Bad leaders may have been successful in the past. But when they refuse to take on new challenges, assuming that they’ve already ‘done enough,’ they block the way for others who are eager to try new ideas and attack bigger problems. They coast through new projects, putting great effort into trimming all the hard work out of them before they even begin. They rely on their past achievements being ‘good enough’ and never feel inspired to improve what was done before.

on Tomato Time

It may be a stretch to write about productivity on a Friday (the Friday before Christmas holiday, at that) but I’m going to give it a try anyway.

If you’re a human who must use a computer for any more than a few hours a day to do your job, chances are you probably struggle somewhat with staying on task. It is in the internet’s DNA to make jumping from one thing to another really easy. The purpose of hypertext (you know, that http thing in a web address) is to transfer you from one text to another… and do it at hyperspeed!

I’ve lost a lot of productivity when I encounter a frustrating problem, and instead of forging through decide to take an internet ‘break’ which stretches into hours. It’s difficult to keep a disciplined work routine when you’re face to face with a ‘distraction machine’ all day.

For the last several weeks, however, I’ve been using a method that’s something like the dragon slayer of wasted time – the Pomodoro Technique.

Named after a kitchen timer shaped like a tomato (pomodoro) the technique was invented by some guy in some place some time ago. That’s not important. What’s important is the method: work a solid 25 minutes, with no interruptions or distractions. At the 25th minute, a bell chimes, and you take a five minute break. Get up, stretch, pour coffee, whatever. Then another 25 minutes. Repeat the cycle, and after completing four cycles (or ‘pomos’) extend the break to 15 or 25 minutes.

Work 25, Rest 5, Work 25, Rest 5, Work 25, Rest 5, Work 25, Rest 15.

There’s some psychology or other sciencey stuff that explains why this works so well. I think you can read all about that in the ‘founders’ original paper on the technique, available here. There are also functions to improve the cycles, like planning out tasks before beginning a ‘pomo,’ estimating how many ‘pomos’ a task might take, and ‘dropping’ any pomo which is interrupted beyond repair.

I wish I could remember where I first heard about this technique so I could give credit to whoever has bumped up my output over the last several weeks. As I’ve faced deadlines for end-of-semester projects in graduate school, been tasked with a new project at work, and continued trying to read & write in my own time, using the pomo method has been invaluable.

Aside from keeping me disciplined about getting shit done, the pomo technique has also made clear to me that the 8 hour workday is a myth. For anyone working in an office, actually getting 8 hours of solid work done is difficult and unlikely. The most pomos I’ve been able to complete in a single day is 16 – almost equal to about 8 hours of work – but it took me from 9:30 in the morning to 11:15 at night to do it.

There are a variety of apps for smartphones, desktop & the web that make following the process a breeze. Most will display a countdown on your display, at the end of which a small bell chimes, reminding you to take your break. I recommend the ‘Pomotodo‘ app, which also lets you write a short statement about what was accomplished with each ‘pomo’ and displays nice charts and graphs to help you visualize your work.

Screen Shot 2014-12-19 at 7.23.31 AM

I gave myself approximately one pomo to write and publish this blog post – and knowing that I have only a limited amount of time to accomplish it is making me work a little bit harder and a little bit faster. Hopefully I’ll be finished on time, and get to have a 5 minute coffee when I’m done!

Cubicles are Bullshit

There is a place inside every American middle and high school that misbehaving students are sent for rehabilitation. It’s called ‘In-School Suspension,’ or I.S.S.

The method of this punishment is that unruly kids are taken out of regular classrooms and placed in a quiet room with desks that have ‘privacy’ walls – the idea being that if they can’t see other students they won’t be provoked to interact with them and disrupt the teacher’s authority.

An enforcer sits in the room, overseeing everyone to make sure they aren’t just sleeping. Actual school work is expected to be completed during this time.

What no one tells these kids, as they sit in I.S.S., is that they are getting a lesson of much greater utility than they realize – they’re being taught how to sit in a cubicle, which very many of them will inevitably end up doing once they become adults.

As far as interior design goes, the differences between sitting in I.S.S. and working in a cubicle are extraordinary. By extraordinary, I mean extraordinarily similar.

Here’s a picture of the office at the New York Times in Manhattan.

Desks at The New York Times, Manhattan.

Desks at The New York Times, Manhattan.

Here’s a picture of some kids serving In School Suspension in Minnesota.

Students serving In School Suspensions, Minnesota.

Students serving In School Suspensions, Minnesota.

For the last few weeks I’ve been trying to read the wonderful book that Nikil Saval has written about the history of the workplace, ‘Cubed.‘ His meticulous research traces back the initial transition of an industrial society that produces material goods to an informational one that produces services and knowledge. He recounts the American movement out of factories and into the office.

Unfortunately, lost in this beneficial transition was an equally evolved concept of the physical spaces in which employees worked.

As I make my way through page after page of examples leading to the obvious conclusion that cubicles are bullshit, I find myself struggling with the slog to the book’s end. Not because it’s a bad book – it’s a fantastic book – but because I know how it ends.

It ends with me sitting in a cubicle.

the Four Hour “Lorem Ipsum”

What would I do with the extra thirty-six if I only had to work for four hours, every week?

In Tim Ferris’ book, The Four Hour Workweek, the answer to that question is given less attention than the ‘how-to’ guide for finding oneself in such a quandary. As he recounts his own experience, the author presents the alternative ‘new rich’ lifestyle of time spent dwelling nomadically through Europe, learning languages, and adopting several new ‘kinesthetic’ activities per year as the alternative to cubicle-dwelling wage slavery.

For a creative mind, some of the ideas might be poisonous to accept – Ferris proposes a ‘physical product’ driven business as the only path to a life of R&R; he argues that selling widgets, gidgets and gadgets is the easiest framework for removing oneself from the day-to-day operations of a financial enterprise. Artists, singers, athletes, counselors, teachers, beware – there are no four hour workweeks in your future, if you can’t outsource the manufacture & fulfillment of your muses to virtual assistants in India.

After drawing up thorough instructions on how to pick a market and jump in to the sales fray, Ferris takes a moment to reflect on what it will feel like, when you’ve done enough outsourcing to travel leisurely around the world and spend only brief moments checking email to run your business: ‘It will be hard at first.’

He says it’s in this extra downtime when you’ll come face-to-face with big questions – ‘What’s the meaning of everything?’  Ferris asserts that dwelling on the intangibles may be avoided by frequent jiu-jitsu or tango dancing lessons.

The motivational and analytical quotations peppered into the text are enriching, and appear so often that readers may subconsciously find them as one of the most compelling reasons to keep turning pages. From Machiavelli:

“All courses of action are risky, so prudence is not in avoiding danger (it’s impossible), but calculating risk and acting decisively. Make mistakes of ambition and not mistakes of sloth. Develop the strength to do bold things, not the strength to suffer.” 

The wealth of quotes are thoughtful, and despite the book’s overall ridiculousness, they complement several other useful tidbits buried in the impossible mission of spending only four hours per week doing actual work. For example, the few paragraphs on speed reading were unexpectedly helpful.

With his big plan and fancy quotes, Ferris seems all set to kick up his feet with an umbrella drink and live the dream. But hasn’t this question of one’s obligation to forgo personal pleasure in the name of societal duties been around for a while?

In the publishing industry, for hundreds and hundreds of years, the Latin text ‘Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet…’ (attributed to Cicero, 45 B.C.) has been used as placeholding filler for typesetters to use before final copy was ready. In translation, Lorem Ipsum states…

‘We denounce with righteous indignation and dislike men who are so beguiled and demoralized by the charms of pleasure of the moment, so blinded by desire, that they cannot foresee the pain and trouble that are bound to ensue.’

Uncountable drafts of novels, newspapers, and magazines have used this quote in their creation process. Gutenberg himself may have plated it out. Whatever reason one chooses to argue for its selection, its ancient dictum is stark: Concentrating only on pleasure is bad.

Yet, here is Tim Ferris, flying in the face of 500 years of publishing tradition with an entire volume dedicated to enriching the lives of ‘men who are so beguiled and demoralized by the charms and pleasure of the moment, so blinded by desire…

I’m searching here for some thread of irony in The Four Hour Workweek’s reliance on quotes from big thinkers (Seneca, Thoreau, Bruce Lee…) yet in the end, the author repulses at ‘coming face to face with the big questions.’ And as a reader, after completing the book, you might be wondering whose advice to follow…

Tim Ferris, with a few years on the best seller list under his belt, questing for 80% pleasure and only 20% work?  Or Cicero, and his thousands of years of placeholder-text wisdom: “in certain circumstances and owing to the claims of duty or the obligations of business it will frequently occur that pleasures have to be repudiated and annoyances accepted.”

Perhaps it’s a bit demanding to expect that The Four Hour Workweek will match the lofty ideals set forth by the people whom it quotes (or who its typesetters quoted.) Its presentation is gimmicky, but underneath the goo, there lives some valuable advice and reasonable calls for reflection on the profit-driven and time-crunched modern lifestyle.

 

on What to Wear

Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.

-Mark Twain

Some occupations require a uniform – to identify an individual who performs some specific duty, whether a police officer, a nurse, a judge. Other professions have ‘unwritten’ rules about dress, lawyers wear suits, mechanics wear work-shirts, and for some reason… web developers wear jeans and old t-shirts. Since I’ve entered the workforce, I’ve been on both sides of policy, with the majority of my time spent in offices where anything goes.

Whether or not to give in to the ultra casual atmosphere of the office is a question I face every morning. There seems to be an ingrained belief in the community that developers are free to dress as slovenly as they like, because, goddammit, they’re developers! I’m usually in favor of people doing what makes them happy, but I struggle with trying to ‘dress down’ just to appear ‘casual.’

Maybe its because I went to a high school (for a little while) where I had to wear a uniform, or maybe its because growing up I saw my parents go to work wearing ‘professional’ looking clothes, but I’m still confused by what I see people wearing to offices. Sweatpants? Trackpants? NO pants?

My scrutiny on this topic might be the result of living in the Washington DC area – arguably one of the most conservatively dressed cities in the world. If I lived in California, I’d probably file into work wearing shorts and flip-flops without giving it a second thought.

The Zuckerberg Hoodie

If everyone I saw on my way to my desk were all without pants, then sure, I’d happily strip down. The problem is that in many offices, one company isn’t the sole tenant of a building – there are many other people around, who aren’t developers, most of them outfitted in business threads, and they’re all staring at the ‘web kids’ with a genuine what-the-fuck look on their face. This can really complicate elevator rides and trying to get tables at restaurants.

I’ve heard it explained that dressing down is more ‘comfortable’, but is it? The only uncomfortable piece of clothing that exists (for men) is a necktie. Other than that, jeans, slacks, shirts with or without collars, all pretty much feel the same.

I’m definitely not saying that I’m the most buttoned-down person in the world. In short sleeves I have exposed tattoos, so my appearance is always questionable to some people, but I do what I can to look professional when I’m in a situation that requires it.

So there is the question – what is a situation that requires it? Is proximity to other more businessly-dressed people a case for primping? Or should one only spruce up when an important meeting is scheduled? Is just leaving the house a case for sporting your finest habiliments?

on Employment

I guess my first gig was walking around my neighborhood, shoveling snow from the sidewalks of neighbors for a few bucks a house. Earning business was simple – the bigger I could stretch my 10 year old smile while making the pitch, the liklier the homeowner was to pay me. This progressed to eventually working at the swimming pool, checking member passes when people came in. I graduated from that to seasonal work at the costume store, where I donned a 70’s purple velour pimp outfit, with afro wig, and stood on the corner waving around a sign.

I started the first job I had that really felt like a job in college. What I mean is: jobs are awful soul-sucking craters of despair, my first taste came while slicing half pounds of ham, working behind a deli counter, and wearing a hair net that covered a bald head. I decided midway through a cigarette break one day that deli life wasn’t for me, and left without returning.

After the deli, I found myself stumbling toward civic beautification by laboriously maintaining park grounds, riding around in a little truck with lawn trimming equipment, swatting at flies with a rubber gloved hand, painting fake rocks mustard brown and ruining old pairs of shoes. The repeated use of the phrase ‘Git-r-done’ and the sad realization that some co-workers were only a half-step away from being inmates drove me away.

I landed in the comparatively posh world of retail next. Initially unloading trucks and stocking shelves at the electronics store Best Buy, I met the first truly asshole boss of my career, and found my way to the much happier (but sadly now defunct) environment of Tower Records, which at the perfect age of 19 was for certain, a ‘dream’ job.

Tower was a candy-land of interestingness, the first place where I would have been happy to do my work even if they weren’t paying me (not that they were paying me much.) Meandering among the stacks of rock music, films, books and magazines was mind-broadening in the cultural sense, and the cash register was a fair introduction to the world of people, goods, and money.

Unfortunately, nothing gold can stay.

So much has changed from job to job – what I interpret as normal in once place is completely absurd in another. The countless people I’ve worked with have all been different. Its hard to understand what exactly ‘work’ is, when it varies so much from place to place, and having moved around in different contexts, carrying bits with me from one to the next is both confusing and enlightening.

Can I borrow your stapler?

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On Being a Tattooed Person

Various analysts see being tattooed as indicating a penchant for violence (Newman, 1982), a tendency toward self-destructive behavior (Burma, 1965; Kurtzberg et al., 1967; Taylor, 1970), a pathological need for attention (Haines and Huffman, 1958), or a tendency to engage in certain forms of property crime (Haines and Huffman, 1958; Orten and Bell, 1974).

Customizing the Body: The Art and Culture of Tattooing

How should a tattooed person react to a statement like that? Each source was published between 1958-1982. Has so much changed since then? If I go down the list, I can check off the afflictions that I feel safe saying aren’t mine:

  • A penchant for violence:  I don’t have this. I was in a fight once, in kindergarten.  I punched a boy named Brad because I thought his name sounded dumb.  I have never punched anyone again. (But I still don’t have any friends named Brad)
  • A tendency toward self destructive behavior: I guess this depends on how ‘self-destructive behavior’ is defined.  Do I cut myself?  No.  Do my feet hurt from running 25 miles a week?  Sure.  Do I dance in the middle of the freeway?  No.  Have I ever been hopelessly romantic?  Yep.
  • A pathological need for attention:  OK, this is dumb. Anyone born after the early eighties who has access to the internet is a completely narcissistic self-broadcasting robot.  I’m not sure there’s any correlation to the tattoos.
  • A tendency to engage in certain forms of property crime: I was disciplined for silly teenage graffiti once – it wasn’t serious, and happened years before I had any tattoos. Now that I have my own property to destroy, drawing on other people’s isn’t as thrilling. I’m not a vandal, and don’t know any other tattooed people who are.