There is Competition, But Not as Much as You Think

I had an interesting conversation with my younger brother the other day. He is a college student who has the beginnings of a nice career playing jazz music. Unfortunately the pandemic has a huge negative influence on musicians who play live music, including my brother. He’s been looking for another job to help fill the gap until his live gigs restart.

He had an interview scheduled for the afternoon, then in the morning an opportunity related to his music came up. He called to ask my opinion of what he should do. Keep the interview appointment and miss out on the music? Go do the music and not get the job? I saw a third option: call the interviewer, explain that something had come up and ask if it would be possible to reschedule. He did that and everything worked out wonderfully. He got to take advantage of the musical opportunity and still had an interview a few days later.

It sometimes feels like the world is filled with competition, and on some level that is true. There are a lot of people in the world and many of them want the same things you do. When it comes down to details, however, it’s amazing how few people there are that try hard and go the extra mile, especially when looking for a job. They spellcheck their resume, are polite and punctual, and try to show their potential value to the company. In my experience with hiring, there may be hundreds of people who apply but only a handful do the things to merit serious consideration. Those few people are your competition. By simply being a functioning adult you can eliminate the majority of your competition. By showing that you are responsible and considerate, the type of person that others would like to work with, you’re almost to the final round.

There will always be competition for anything worthwhile, but don’t let the idea of competition stop you from competing. Be the kind of person you would want to hire yourself and you’ll likely find that your competitive field gets much smaller very quickly.

Hat tip to Brett McKay at Art of Manliness for the inspiration.


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“The Battle Against Them Would Be in the Shade and Not in the Sun”

One of the most difficult things for me is starting something new. I love learning new things. Researching, comparing, reading about others who have done the same thing, I enjoy all of it. What’s hard is when it’s time to stop reading and start doing.

Here are a few methods I’ve found that can help.

Reframing the situation can make something difficult look less daunting. This takes a good sense of humor many times, but can help more than you’d think.

One of my favorite stories is of the Spartan army at Thermopylae. Herodotus, the Greek historian, recorded this scene:

(…) the Spartan Dienekes is said to have proved himself the best man of all, the same who, as they report, uttered this saying before they engaged battle with the Medes:— being informed by one of the men of Trachis that when the Barbarians discharged their arrows they obscured the light of the sun by the multitude of the arrows, so great was the number of their host, he was not dismayed by this, but making small account of the number of the Medes, he said that their guest from Trachis brought them very good news, for if the Medes obscured the light of the sun, the battle against them would be in the shade and not in the sun.

Yes, the battle was hopeless. Yes, they were facing certain death. But at least they could fight in the shade. You can imagine the cold laughter that followed Dienekes’s quip, but that laughter also broke up the fear in many hearts. Reframe the situation and see if things don’t look better than you thought.

The second method is to remove alternatives. Boredom can be a powerful motivator, though it’s something most of us don’t experience often enough. When we remove more pleasant activities it’s easier to get started on the hard ones.

In his autobiography, Langston Hughes tells the story of a trip from New York to Africa on a ship. The first night of the trip he threw all of his books overboard.

Melodramatic maybe, it seems to me now. But then it was like throwing a million bricks out of my heart when I threw the books into the water. I leaned over the rail of the S.S. Malone and threw the books as far as I could out into the sea—all the books I had had at Columbia, and all the books I had lately bought to read….

You see, books had been happening to me. Now the books were cast off back there somewhere in the churn of spray and night behind the propeller. I was glad there were gone.

With no books around to read, Hughes started to write as never before. It was the true beginning of his writing career.

When it’s hard to start, that means the thing you are doing is worthwhile. Nothing good ever comes without resistance. Fight through the resistance, however you can, and as you get to work you’ll know more from the doing than you could from just studying and preparing.


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The Applied Physics of Efficient Work

Sometimes we forget how powerful small actions can be. Each time the seasons change and it’s time to switch from heat to cool (or cool to heat) I’m reminded of a simple lesson in applied physics.

We moved into our house in December. The heat in our house worked fine. When summer came and we were ready to switch on the air conditioner, I couldn’t figure out why the upper floor of our house was so hot. It seemed that no matter how low I turned the thermostat, the upper floor just wouldn’t cool down.

I googled it and learned a trick that solved my problem. Hot air rises, so in the winter you should close all of the vents on the upper floor of your house and open the vents on the lower floor. This allows the lower floor to get heat, then the hot air rises and heats the upper floor. In the summer the opposite is true. Cool air falls, so the vents should be open on the upper floor and closed on the lower floor. The air cools the upper floor, then naturally falls to cool the lower floor.

There aren’t hacks for everything in life, but there are principles that can be applied across domains to make our lives easier. Just as cooling the upper floor of my house was hard when the downstairs vents were open, doing work with the wrong tools and in the wrong way makes it harder than it needs to be.

For example, when you’re writing an email it makes no sense to use a smartphone. Yes, there are some people who need to have email on their phone for work, but not most of us. Save your email for a computer with a keyboard. This has the dual benefit of making you more effective at processing your email and sending useful replies, and saves you from constantly checking email on your phone or receiving notifications.

Removing email from my phone was something that made a huge difference to to my happiness and my productivity. Even if this isn’t something that will directly apply to the work you do, you can find similar applications of this principle in the work you can do. Look for ways to affect a large improvement from a small change.


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The Right Way is the Hard Way

Worthwhile pursuits are hard. Work worth doing involves struggle. This is one of the lessons I wish I had learned earlier in life.

This afternoon I saw a perfect example of this. We had a small, Friday afternoon emergency at work. A customer needed a very specific data set that I knew was in our database but that I didn’t know how to retrieve. A coworker stepped up and saved the day.

She has been studying a monster book called SQL for Mere Mortals (public library). This is not light reading. It’s the kind of book you should never read while laying on your back—if you fall asleep and it drops on your face it’ll break your nose. I know studying it has been a chore.

She crafted a query that gave us exactly what we needed. The hard work she’s been putting in paid off.

In a recent interview Jerry Seinfeld said “If you’re efficient, you’re doing it the wrong way. The right way is the hard way. The show was successful because I micromanaged it—every word, every line, every take, every edit, every casting. That’s my way of life.”

Embracing hard work and the focus needed to do hard work is unusual. Most people don’t work this way. But if we want to accomplish great things it’s the right path.


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Break Tasks Down into Small Chunks

As I write this my son is playing scales on his double bass. (Tomorrow morning he has an audition for the high school orchestra, which is a big deal for an 8th grader.) Scales are one of the most important and most boring things to practice on an instrument because they give the player a chance to work on small chunks of difficult notes over and over. It’s a great analogy for how all work should be done.

The B melodic minor scale on double bass has some interesting challenges. There are notes that aren’t played frequently and hand positions where the thumb goes somewhere it normally doesn’t. Getting this scale right involves practicing difficult movements over and over until they feel natural. Once those difficult sections are familiar the rest of the scale is easy to play.

In college and when I played music professionally I didn’t really appreciate the lessons I learned from playing hours of scales. Those same principles are scattered throughout the work I do each day. Break big jobs down into smaller chunks. Identify the chunks I’m already comfortable with and set those aside. Identify the hard chunks and spend the most time on those. Put everything together at the end and run it until it feels natural.

It doesn’t matter if the work is preparing a presentation, writing sales copy, coding part of a website, or having a difficult one-on-one conversation with an employee. The principles behind playing scales work for all the work I do, and probably for the work you do to.

I just hope I won’t have B melodic minor played by an 8th grade bassist stuck in my head all night. Ah, the hazards of parenting!


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Process Accelerates Creativity

Recently I was part of an off-site planning meeting. My company flew people from different parts of the country to Portland for three days. Part of the success of these types of meetings is of course the human aspect—when you get together in person you form closer bonds—but our great success this time came in the creative leaps we made. We owe this success to the process put in place before the meetings.

Two members of our group did a great job of getting everyone’s input and ideas written down. They produced a schedule that we used to guide the meetings. During the three days they adapted the schedule based on where the process took us. Most of the time the meetings were very free-form and spontaneous, or at least that’s how they felt to me. Once in a while we would be nudged back into the structure of the schedule. It worked amazingly well.

In our case, process enhanced and accelerated our results. The structure made creativity possible. Don’t ignore the importance of setting up effective processes.


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Small Successes Lead to Big Victories

One of the hardest aspects of work for me is when I know I have a hard task to do. I’ve found some psychological trickery that works well on me that might be useful for you too.

I’m a big fan of the Pomodoro Technique. There are lots of ways to implement it, but the basic premise is to work for 25 minutes, then take a five minute break. After four 25 minute work periods then take a longer break.

The reason this helps me is because no matter how hard the entirety of the task is, I know I can work for 25 minutes. It’s embarrassing how often I have to tell myself that any old dummy can work for 25 minutes, or that after I do one pomodoro I’ll quit and work on something else. Starting is the hardest part. Once I get going I nearly always find that I’m surprised by the timer going off, and starting the second, third, and subsequent pomodoros is never a challenge.

There is a lot of interesting research into why a technique like this, and I consider this a form of batching, works so well. Beating resistance and getting started is so important. Getting started early is important. Perhaps the most important aspect of this for me is that I may not see a path to success for a large project, but I know I can win if the game is simply to work for 25 minutes. I’m not worried about winning the whole war, just winning this one little battle.

Hat tip to David Cain and Tim Ferriss who wrote great posts this week on subjects that reminded me of this.


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Assume the Best in Others, Despite Any Evidence to the Contrary

I had a friend years ago who’s father owned an exercise equipment company. His father gave an interview that always stuck with me. His favorite line was “work hard, play hard, sleep well.” Recently we went through some technical issues at work and customers contact us to complain. That’s always uncomfortable, but more so when you are genuinely trying to be forthcoming and honest.

We know what goes on in our own mind and what our intentions are. We have a good idea about the intentions of people close to us. It’s so hard to feel satisfied that people outside our immediate circle are working in good faith. We’re conditioned to assume the worst, and for some very good reasons. But if we allow that to be our default assumption about everyone we miss out on the joy that comes from understanding others.

I’m going to assume the customer that accused me of hiding my intentions just hasn’t learned this skill yet. He is likely a delightful person who is having a bad day. His anger helps him right now, and I accept that. Eventually he’ll either come around or he’ll move on.

As for me, I will be fine either way. I know we’ve done a good job. I’ll allow his anger to give me a chance to practice skills that will serve me for years to come. This moment could be an important milestone that I will look back on with fondness in the future.

I will sleep well tonight knowing that I did my best work today.


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