career two by four

Lately I’ve had occasion to give advice to a few people who are early in their careers.  I always find myself amusingly inept at this activity – the more actual experience I have, the more young people think I have something useful to tell them, but the further I am from the time when I was actually making the decisions they face, so the less accurate my recollection is, and the more my advice is colored by soft nostalgia rather than rooted in hard facts.  The wisdom of experience turns into the banality of platitudes.

Of course, none of this stops me from spouting on and on about how to manage your early career.  One set piece I often relate is that there are only four personal characteristics that can advance your success: Intelligence, Diligence, Personality and Mentality.  Many people get very far early on with just one of these characteristics, and so they begin to believe that this characteristic is the most important or even the only important one.  When they begin to fail, they double down on the characteristic that they believe in, which only deepens their failure.

To understand why this is true, consider the other side of this same advice, which applies to people just learning how to manage teams.  There are few things as destructive to a team as the person who has one of the characteristics in spades, but lacks any useful amount of the others.  The brilliant genius who can’t get along with others, the guy who works terribly hard but always on the wrong things, the “people person” who plays politics rather than solves problems, the hard charger who plays to win at any cost – these are all different forms of the same cancer, and they must be excised from the team as soon as they are identified.

So development of the four characteristics rules both sides of the management divide.  And on either side, you have to have great strength in more than one of these characteristics, and you have to understand how all of them contribute to success.

know thyself

I am fascinated by a concept I recently came across in Eating The Dinosaur.  Author Chuck Klosterman and documentary filmmaker Errol Morris discuss whether people have “privileged access” to their own minds.

Privileged access is a weighty philosophical matter that is popularly stated as a question of whether a person has special access to his or her own thoughts that other people do not have.  An intuitive answer is, “Of course I know my own thoughts better than anyone else does!”  But this isn’t simply a question of what you are thinking at any given moment; it’s about whether what you think about yourself is more accurate than what any other people think about you.

Here’s a thought experiment:  Do you know what you would do if you found a paper bag containing $10,000?  What amounts would lead to a different decision, and why?

I think I would keep it. I would rationalize this action (which is probably illegal) by noting that there is almost never a legitimate reason to carry around that much in cash in a paper bag – this is almost certainly drug dealer money, and why should I give drug dealers a chance to recover it?

I would definitely keep, say, five dollars – maybe I would give it to a panhandler, maybe I would buy a sandwich, but I wouldn’t leave it on the ground.  Unless someone nearby might have dropped it, I wouldn’t consider trying to find the owner, or turning the money in to the police – no one will ever come to claim $5.  In contrast, if I found $100,000, I would definitely turn it in.  When that much money gets lost, someone will look for it hard enough to make me uncomfortable – I don’t want to end up in jail, or worse, facing the guys who stole this money before I did (these guys would give up on $10K, but they would seek $100K with violent diligence).  Even more complicated, I think that I would turn in $5000.  There are plenty of legitimate reasons that a law-abiding person could be carrying that amount around, and I would want that person to have every opportunity to recover that money.

So in short, I think I would make a risk and fairness assessment, and act with a mixture of pragmatism and greed.  (Don’t get me wrong – none of this is what I want to do.  I want to believe that I would ignore any amount too small to turn in, and turn in any amount too large to ignore.  But I’m not so self-deluded to think that I always live up to my ideal self-image.)

This thought experiment has one more part:  If you polled a dozen people who know you best on the same questions, what would they say you would do?  Who is likelier to be right, them or you?

I think the majority of this group would say I would turn in the $10K.  In fact, I would guess that a plurality of people would say I would keep or ignore any amount under $100 and turn in any amount over $1000 – their assessment would be closer to my own ideal self, which I feel quite certain is not accurate.  Their reasons for my choices would vary broadly, much more broadly than the pragmatic greed I expressed, and would include reasons that I would not expect.

Is this group likelier to be right about me than I am myself?  I can’t answer that with an intuitive “I know my thoughts – I know myself – better than anyone else.”  There have been too many times when I have been surprised to discover that someone was a better predictor of my actions than I was.

Now, I don’t think that I have particularly poor self-knowledge.  In fact, as this post perhaps deplorably illustrates, I can examine my own navel to exacting excess.  But where does that leave me if the fact that I know myself particularly well only means that I am especially aware that I don’t know myself any better than other people do?  Makes my head hurt.

the iron quadrangle

I was talking with a friend tonight about “The Iron Quadrangle” – my name for a concept that I’ve read about and pondered over the years.  Unfortunately, I can’t remember where I first saw it; happily, we agreed that this means I can restate it without attribution . . .

So here is the rule of the Iron Quadrangle:

Friends, family, work and health are the four most meaningful areas of pursuit in life.  The very best that most people can achieve is to be outstanding in two areas, mediocre in one, and barely tolerable in the last.

Be wary of any advice that rigidly proclaims to know which combination is best for everyone.  For example, a lot of well-meaning homilies put family and health above all other values.  But the Iron Quadrangle means that all four values are connected; activity in any one informs all of the others.

Keep in mind that health includes physical and mental health; and that work includes all vocation, whether in pursuit of profit or pursuit of a cause.  Meaningful and lasting friendships are a critical contributor to lifelong health.  Pursuit of your true calling in work should be both emotionally enriching and intellectually revitalizing.

So maximizing your pursuit of family and health, to the exclusion of full effort with friends and work, can limit your achievement in the areas you would want to advance the most.  Would you have given all that you could to your life partner and your children if you never tested your mettle with the greatest challenges at work, or failed to develop rich friendships outside of your family?

Some will try to argue for picking work and family, or friends and family, or health and friends.  Some would claim that the limitation to two outstanding areas is false.  But in my experience and observation, the Iron Quadrangle is pitiless and brooks very few exceptions – and what exceptions I have seen are more a result of extremely fortuitous circumstances than the result of thought and effort.

This isn’t a pessimistic message, but rather a reflection on avoiding regret.  Many high-achieving people in every area look upon their accomplishments with regret for the areas in which they did not excel.  I think regret is only appropriate where people made choices while lying to themselves about the consequences for the other areas.