Pages of Promise

With an hour to kill the other day I went in to a Barnes and Noble and just browsed through.  I walked each row, waiting for something to jump out at me.  While there were many books I would gladly take home, I left empty handed but satisfied.

New bookstores are great; with their targeted displays, bright lights, comfy chairs and coffee.  But even better is libraries and second hand bookstores.  The books there have more character; more gravitas.  They have been read by hundreds of people and are worn with dogeared corners and marginalia that is often indecipherable.  The people who work at these places are true lovers of books, more often than not found behind their desk nose deep in one.  Ask for a recommendation and their eyes light up as they encounter a kindred spirit.

And it is in these musty old bookstores that the magical possibility remains, of finding a treasure; some forgotten tome yielding incredible powers.  At least that is what I imagined as a kid…

My love of books and bookstores began very early, with my parents.  I was read to as a child, as I read to my kids today.  As I got older the library served as my internet and I would check out a big stack each week; a mix of science fiction and reference.  Some days I would sit at the library and read a full book before taking the rest home on my bike.

My Grandfather was also a bigtime reader of spy and thriller novels, with a large collection housed in a beautiful built in bookshelf.  I would spend Sunday afternoons with him; first mowing the lawn ($5.00!), then doing some woodworking.  Next, we would have lunch and play a few rounds of solitaire. Finally, I would choose a book from his collection for the week.  It was here that I discovered Trevanian and Ludlum, and had read the entire Bourne trilogy twice by the time I was fourteen.

Then there are found books; those books discovered in the back of an airplane seat, or on a chair at the bus stop.  I have left books in these places myself and know that they are not forgotten items, but gifts left by fellow travelers for the next reader.  I actually just found one at a heliport I flew out of – An Officers Duty by Jean Johnson –  and it was excellent.

Working at sea also encourages a lot of reading, especially in the days before ready access to TV or internet that now provides “quality of life”.  The readers would bring four to six books each trip – leaving them in the communal ships library when done.  You read it, then pass it along and take a new one.  The Seafarers Mission would also provide books to sailors free of charge, showing up at the gangway with a box brimming with the promise of adventure.

Stopping at bookstores in different countries was a magical experience.  I’ve purchased books from all over the world; both from famous bookstores and from tiny hole in the wall shops.  I began doing yoga as a result of a how-to book purchased in Bermuda.  I purchased The Moviegoer in New Orleans at a store located at the former residence of William Faulkner.  Everywhere you go, there will be something for you.

When the kindle arrived on the scene it was truly revolutionary.  Now I could travel with as many books as I wanted, minus the added weight in my luggage.  I read almost exclusively on my iPad for years to follow.  But recently I began to take note of a change in reading culture.  Ships no longer have well stocked libraries and the joy of discovering an excellent book totally by chance began to disappear; now you just dial up exactly what you want, when you want it.  In January I began my 12 Months of Modernism reading program for the year and had decided to read hardcopies, which was the best decision I could have made.  It has got me back into the bookstores and the dwindling culture of readers of the paperback novel.

There are still treasures to be found out there but you need to get out and look.  Maybe there will be a resurgence and paperback books will become ironically cool again, much like kids listening to vinyl.  But to me, a life spent with a nose in books is a life well lived, and there is nothing like walking into a store with books stacked to the ceiling, brimming with pages of promise.

Prioritize Ruthlessly

“I think the most important thing we’ve learned as we’ve grown is that we have to prioritize,” said Sandberg. “We talk about it as ruthless prioritization. And by that what we mean is only do the very best of the ideas. Lots of times you have very good ideas. But they’re not as good as the most important thing you could be doing. And you have to make the hard choices.” – interview with Inc. Magazine

When the COO of Facebook talks about prioritization we would all do well to sit up and take note.

We all want to be more productive; squeezing more out of the day and crushing that to-do list.  But at what point does ”productive” degrade into “busy”?  Just because we can be working on something doesn’t mean that we should.  It may not be the best use of our time, but how to choose those activities that will have the greatest impact?

Adding to the trouble these days is that as we transition further towards a knowledge worker based economy, there just isn’t as much physical evidence of completion.  Working with your hands offers tangible evidence of how hard you work.  Pound enough nails and eventually you’ll build a house.  But what evidence is left after a day of crunching numbers on a spreadsheet and collaborating online?

This has inadvertently given rise to the “always on” phenomenon, where emails are replied to immediately and colleagues eat lunch with their cellphones on the table.  Each email sent represents a unit of work completed, so you can get feedback about how much you are doing feel good about what you’ve accomplished.  At least until the end of the day when you look back and can’t think of a single thing you did that was actually valuable.

Ruthless Prioritization

The key to success is to focus on the things that truly matter, to the exclusion of all else.  Easy to say, hard to do.

Defining what truly matters can be tricky and takes time.  The employee handbook at work is a good place to start but won’t take you all the way.  Your job description is just the baseline of what is expected of you in order to maintain the status quo.  Those that shine learn to read between the lines and focus on the unspoken tasks that really matter; the 20% of activities that make 80% of the difference.

Modeling others who you feel are high performers in your industry is another good place to look.  Watch what they do and ask questions about what they feel is important.  They may not be able to articulate what it is they are doing however, as it might just come naturally.  But the more information you can gather the better a position you’ll be in to make informed choices.

Priority = One

Prioritization is the act of ranking items in their order of importance.  Ruthless Prioritization then is to eliminate everything on the lower end of that list that doesn’t provide enough value for your time invested.

In business, we all want more sales.  So do we focus on making sales calls, or should we focus on doing an amazing job so that our sales are driven by referrals?  If we are trying to both do the work and generate the work, are we doing our best work?  Or is it better to focus on the work and let the results generate more work?  I argue the latter, and we all know of a company or individual who stays so busy from referrals that they have to turn work away.  It is no coincidence that those individuals are also typically at the top of the pay scale as well.

Focus on one thing at a time to the exclusion of all else and your results will skyrocket.  The hard part is cutting out the non-essentials, because we feel obliged to work on them too.  But think back to how much busywork you completed last month and ask what value it truly generated.

Reducing the number of things you focus on allows you more time to focus on what matters.  You’ll do a better job, achieve better results, and will actually have more time to spend doing what you want; because focused work gets finished quicker.

Choose one thing, block out a chunk of time, and get after it.

The High Cost of Opportunity

We have near limitless opportunities available to us these days.  The internet has given us the opportunity to communicate with people we would otherwise never have access to, opportunities to learn anything we set our minds to, and opportunities to have a voice and be heard.

But being spoiled for choice isn’t always a good thing.  Analysis paralysis and FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) are common.  People either do nothing due to indecision, or try to do it all and fail due to lack of commitment.  The hard truth is that we are limited in both time and attention and can only do so much.  While I am confident in my capacity for work I also understand the limits of my time and energy, which forces me to think on and choose those activities and projects that give the highest ROTI (Return on Time Invested).

A Recent Example

A new opportunity came across my desk last week; or rather, through my inbox.  An industry organization of which I am a member put out a call for a new Editor to take over the bi-monthly magazine.  It is a three-year commitment and is a volunteer position.

What an opportunity!

Think about how much could be learned about the publishing industry in three years, which is a perfect amount of time for a long-term project incidentally.  For a writer, it offers a chance to collaborate with others and the opportunity to steer that publication towards a larger vision.  A successful tenure would also look great on a resume and create the potential to transition into that role at another publication in the future; a position that normally requires a bachelor’s degree in communication or journalism, followed by a long slog upwards starting from the copy room.

Now consider the cost.

A commitment like this is a big deal.  You must deliver on schedule, requiring work each day.  This commitment of time, our one true resource, means less time available for other activities.  And the length of the commitment means that, by saying Yes, you are effectively saying No to any number of opportunities in the future.  Those opportunities may be better than this one or worse; there is no way of knowing.  Saying yes now closes the door to many of those opportunities, but would open the door for others in the future.

Every Yes Equals 1,000 No’s

Opportunities are like doors; each one you accept opens new doors to pass through.  But it closes others that were once open as well.  So how do you choose which to grab and commit to?

I mentioned Return on Time Invested (ROTI) earlier.  What value will we receive for our efforts when this task is complete?  Will suffering through night school to achieve an MBA help us gain the position we strive for?  Will it move us closer to our long-term goals?

The first step is to sit down and ask yourself these questions before jumping in with both feet.  Then, if possible, test the waters with a shorter-term project to see if it is going to be a good fit for you.  I did just that last year when I tried out some further education online.  Before the class was finished I had realized that it was not the path for me and happily dropped out of college.  That decision closed whatever doors that would have become available had I finished, but reopened doors that would present themselves in the future.  Doors such as a potential editorial position at a magazine that would have not been possible if still in the midst of that previous opportunity.

Choose Wisely, Then Commit

Saying yes is easy.  Committing is the hard part.  We tend to focus on the end result that the opportunity will bring, while forgetting about the daily grind that will be required to get from here to there.  But if you never commit to anything how will you learn what you are capable of?

Think twice before passing through the door.  Consider whether that commitment will move you closer to your goals, and that it lines up with your values.  Make sure the juice is worth the squeeze.

And remember that sometimes you don’t get to choose the opportunity.  Sometimes the opportunity chooses you.  All you can do in these cases is decide whether to throw your hat in the ring.  Just be prepared to commit to the opportunity should fate select you.