Sunday, November 26, 2017

Life is Too Short to Eat Shit -- Media Edition

As I mentioned before, one of my personal maxims is that life is too short to eat shit. And it turns out that even the Pope agrees with me.

So in thinking about self-imposed limits on media, I've been subjecting everything to a smell test. If it smells like shit, I've been cutting it out. But this is tricky because I want to distinguish shit from things that aren't shit, but that have a smell I don't particularly like. Because if I only subject myself to things that smell lovely, well then I'm back in the bubble. And none of us can afford to be in the bubble right now.

Here are the metrics I've been using:
  • How relevant it is? Local traffic and weather is highly relevant to my life. The more relevant it is, the easier it is to validate. They say that the snow will start around 1pm, did it? In most cases, relevant = local. However, there are things that are potentially relevant on a larger scale. You know what's not relevant though? Almost everything coming out of Washington.
  • How much BS do I have to wade through to get to it? I follow one political blog that is an easy and relatively painless way to get highlights on what's happening in government at the national level. Painless here means: no ads, no video, no audio, no talking heads, NO COMMENTS. A daily short list of items that I can review in a couple of minutes to see who spouted what bullshit, who quit or got fired, and who made what egregious claim. The authors do some minimal analysis and link to places that do more, but I just ignore all that. I'm not sure that accurate analysis is possible and I've been working hard to withhold opinion based on inaccurate analysis.
  • Can I trust the facts? This is the big one. I'm constantly surprised that smart, educated democrats who were just 12 months ago complaining about the biased media being in the pocket of big corporations and that government intelligence is by definition a lie are now championing those same media outlets as beacons of democracy and believing everything the intelligence agencies say without question. Since when can the CIA be trusted? Since when is the press independent of corporate censorship? These are the same people they were a year ago.
  • What's the ROI? Am I getting something useful out of my investment of time and -- more importantly -- emotional energy? Apply this lens to social media especially. 
I've also been limiting other kinds of media. The radio's been set to the classical station recently. Minimal ads, no news, no chatter. I don't watch fictional series on TV any more. Mention any major series and I probably haven't seen any of it. Instead, I enjoy cooking shows, competitions (Great British Baking-type or Forged in Fire), nature stuff, etc. Note, I don't want to come off as a snob here. Some of these shows are enjoyable, but ultimately silly fluff. I just need to take in less right now. And I definitely need less torture porn cop TV, prowar propaganda, lame and formulaic sitcoms, and complex dramatics that I'm supposed to keep up with for season after season.

I suppose this makes me more boring in the break room at work (no I haven't seen Game of Thrones... like, ever) but so be it. Because that's the way it's gotta be for me right now.

Know why? Because I'm Leroy:

And frankly, I think we're all Leroy. And that kind lady tucking us in? Yeah, that's Western Society (or the Dominant Cultural Paradigm or the Mass Media or the Government Propaganda Machine -- they're all one thing at this point, so take your pick). And to be clear, it's not a conspiracy. It's a complex self-perpetuating consumer system -- and we're what's being consumed. Sometimes it seems like no one's even in charge of it, but that doesn't keep it from being way more terrible than most of us ever expected or in my case could even imagine.

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Friday, November 17, 2017

How to Become a Project Manager -- Lessons From the Corporate World

Since this has come up a couple of times recently (in both my online and IRL lives), I thought it would be useful to spread the PM gospel. While I believe that everyone can benefit from acquiring some PM skills in order to meet their own goals, there are also some people for whom project management would be a good career.

It's important to have a role model
First of all, why would anyone want to be a project manager for a living?

  • The skills are cross functional and can be used in many industries, from computers to medical care to construction. That means more options in the job market based on other skills you already have.
  • The money is good. Let's just be blunt about it. PMs make a good living. They tend to be respected and valued for the work they do.
  • Your job isn't going to get replaced by a robot any time soon.
  • The role isn't easy to off-shore (and if you have PM skills managing off-shore teams, you are doubly valuable).
  • You don't need -- and likely don't even want -- a college degree in PM. This is a field where real-world experience is considered the best training. Degrees can even be looked on with suspicion unless they are coupled with actual experience.

So what sort of strengths do you need to be to be a good PM?

  • Communication skills -- written, verbal, presentation, non-verbal.
  • People skills -- projects are made up of people, so you need to be good with them.
  • Management skills -- even if you don't directly manage the folks on your teams, you are still effectively a manger for that project, so you should not suck at it.
  • Organizational skills -- obviously.
  • The desire for responsibility -- not just the willingness, but the desire. You have to like owning and running stuff. Most of the successful PMs I know are proactive control freaks who enjoy being responsible for things.

If PM degrees aren't that interesting, how do you get a job?

People typically slide into project management sideways. They start out in construction, development, engineering, or healthcare -- something where there are PMs -- and prove that they have the skills and sense of responsibility to manage and coordinate projects and people, then they start seeking out those opportunities until they find they are asked take the role, get a change to get training or a certification, or find they end up with the experience necessary to get the role someplace else. This works because not everyone wants to a) run stuff and b) deal with the details. People who want a) but not b) go into upper management. People who want b) but not a) are wonderful individual contributors. If you like both, you have the makings of a PM and that makes you valuable.

Great, but what if I'm barely out of school / not working (or working in a place where I don't get to run the french fry machine, let alone a project) / or trying to get into a new field entirely and have no experience?

There are professional certifications that carry some weight. They are managed by the PMI -- the Project Management Institute -- and while I didn't have one until I'd already been a program manager, they can help as part of a transition plan. The best and most well known certification is the PMP, but it requires documented experience leading and managing projects as well as training (and a killer exam). The good news is that you can get this experience without the job title, so if you've been doing it and can justify it, this will help you look better on paper. The training can easily be bought through a week-long boot camp class (which trust me, will really help you pass that test).

Another option -- that I'm less familiar with -- is the CAPM, which is the associate PM cert. This one requires experience OR training (and what looks like a smaller exam) and would be a good option for a younger person (like my nephew who has a business degree and is working in fast food right now).

I want to be a PM! What should I do next?

  • See if there are PMs where you work and take one out for coffee. We are as amenable to flattery as the next person.
  • See if there's a local chapter of the PMI and go to a meeting and network. By definition these people will be champions of the career field.
  • Scour job listings. Note, everyone should do this always -- you don't even have to be in the market for a new job for this to be super useful):
    - Look for jobs listings called "project manager" "project coordinator" "program manager" that you might be qualified for based on other experience (it's worth a shot, especially since there are jobs that have the title but that don't have the pay, which you could use as a jumping off point).
    - Look for jobs that you might be able to get that have a project manager type component without the title. You use the experience as the stepping stone to the certification and actual title.
    - Look for the skills that PM jobs are looking for and see how you could get them. Honestly lots of organizations are desperate for people to help organize and coordinate things. Volunteer at your favorite charity, school, club, etc. You'll learn both skills and lessons and can put those on your resume.
  • Do magic. Once you know what you need to learn, enchant for those learning experiences to come to you. Enchant for opportunities to take low cost or free classes in the field (just because a degree isn't useful doesn't mean there's nothing to learn). Enchant to put the right mentors and contact in your path.
I hope this is helpful for anyone curious about PM as more than just a nifty toolkit for getting what you want personally (though it is that as well, obviously). If you can not only keep your shit together, but help other people get theirs together as well, if you crave responsibility and like to control things, if you are reasonably organized and a very good communicator -- you have the makings of a career PM.

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Thursday, November 9, 2017

EBER Project -- Play to Your Strengths (Lessons from the Corporate Sphere)

This post is an expansion of part of this earlier post on setting big goals. If you are trying to figure out what big thing to pursue, I still recommend that post (plus it has a nifty Dr. Horrible theme). This post is about just one important piece of that... focusing on what you do well.

The idea is to play to your strengths and talents. Not because working on your weaknesses is bad but because it's not the best use of your energy. And for a really big goal, you need all the energy you can get. Being athletic has never been a strength of mine, but in looking at ways to be more fit, I need to focus on things I can do. Joining a sports team would be terrible idea, but an activity where I only compete with myself and have a way of seeing progress... that plays to my strengths.

Lots of business and life coaches suggest playing on strengths, so I went hunting for actual research that backs it up. And there is plenty. Plus doing a lot of what you suck at just kind of sucks. It's not the effort (you can be good at things that are hard), it's the endless grind. It's demoralizing.

How do you figure out what you're good at?

In case you have no clue what you're good at, take a look at this article by the Harvard Business Review. It describes a process called the Reflected Best Self (RBS) exercise. Quickly, the stages are as follows:
  1. Ask a bunch of people who know you what you're good at.
  2. Look for themes in the feedback.
  3. Write a description of yourself highlighting your strengths.
  4. Create a description of your goal or dream life based on this description.
Another interesting method for understanding strengths was effectively thrown in my path at a recent conference. Yes, like any good career-person, I have a list of professional development goals. This year's was to attend the Project Management International Global Conference in Chicago.

Sometimes you see something and you just know that it's the right thing for you to do. That's what I experienced when I saw the conference listing and I convinced my boss to send me. And everything about the trip just reinforced my instinct.

First, there was the great group of magicians I had the pleasure of connecting with over dinner. Not only did we have a great time, but they are planning on meeting again, which makes me feel very happy.

Second, there were some particular courses and events that were exactly what I needed right now, such as the Project Management and Stoicism session (seriously the thing I was looking forward to most in the entire conference).

Finally, there was an opportunity to take this interesting CliftonStrengths assessment. The first 450 people to show up the morning of the first day got to take the assessment for free and have either an individual or group coaching session based on the results. I really like the way the assessment was organized. It was easy to take and the results came immediately online. It ranks you on 34 skills in four areas and gives you back your top five strengths. I found the results really interesting and my boss thought they reflected my strengths as well.

The coaching session was also good. For example, described a workplace issue, and she talked me through how I could leverage the things I was good at in order to meet the challenge. It was incredibly useful and insightful. Of course, no one minds hearing about all the stuff they're awesome at, but the thing that really struck me was how to leverage those skills to deal with the things that aren't so easy.

Because let's be honest. Playing to your strengths is great in theory, but what if it's your weaknesses that keep messing you up? Say you are great at learning and focus, but not so good with empathy and folks at work find you annoying because you don't seem to care about them. Unless you are going to find a job in a fire watch tower, you are probably going to have to deal with other people. Maybe you'll never be that good at putting yourself in someone else's shoes, but with your knack for learning, you can read about how to put people at ease and practicing listening skills with your laser-like focus.

Or let's say that you are top notch at finding creative solutions to problems, but have a hard time focusing and getting your ideas in writing. No one will even know how awesome you are if you can't hone and share your vision. So use your creative problem solving to experiment with reducing distractions (maybe you arrange to work from home sometimes, but instead you go to the most boring place you can think of to really concentrate) and communicate your ideas (how about a short video or chart-heavy slide deck to express your cool new ideas?).

In the end, your strengths make up an important part of who you are. And sometimes we have a harder time identifying them than our weaknesses. After all, do you spend more time contemplating how awesome you are or beating yourself up over how much you suck? Yeah, I thought so -- me too!

By the way, you can take the basic assessment for like $20 (I'm in no way associated and certainly don't make any money from it, I just thought it was interesting and useful). I can see using it to identify a new career path, set and meet goals, and find solutions to life's challenges. Because we're all awesome, just at different things.

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Monday, November 6, 2017

Bullet Ephemeris Public Service Announcement

Ever since mentioning my Bullet Ephemeris (and then blogging about it), I've been seeing masses of directed advertising for custom hardbound planner books. I am frankly stunned at the number and variety of these, to the point that I feel obliged to make sort of a public service announcement.

Each of these ads makes roughly the same claims for their product:

  • It will help you achieve every single goal you've ever even remotely contemplated
  • It will turn you into hyper-achieving accomplishment machines
  • It will banish all stress, wasted time, and bad hair-days from your life
  • It is, each and every one, better than all the others

Sigh. Let's have a little chat.

First of all, writing stuff down and being organized isn't a bad thing. But if a fancy form you fill out was all it took to meet your goals... well, there wouldn't be literally dozens of these out there on the Internet. This is why I don't ever give templates to my private consulting clients. In part because I learn a lot more about how people operate when they free-write and self-organize, which allows me to give them the personalized service that they are paying for. Also, when you write it you own it, which is way more important and useful than me providing some kind of arbitrary structure.

Second, meeting all your goals and accomplish accomplish accomplish isn't the idea! The idea is to use these tools to figure out what's most important, what will get you pointed toward your mission, values, and vision, and what will make you happy. And as anyone suffering from the tyranny of choice in this world can tell you, there are always too many goals / classes / options. Not everything has to be a goal or an accomplishment. Know what? I knit. And I'm absolutely not an accomplished knitter. I'm not even a dedicated amateur. I knit when I feel like it, buy supplies as I want guilt free, and occasionally finish something (or abandon it or screw it up). It is, in the purest form, a trifling hobby. And that's fine! Not everything you do has to be a big deal or in service to your goals.

Third, being disorganized does tend to cause stress, but being organized isn't all it takes to banish it. Try exercise and meditation and kale (always the same fucking three, isn't it?). And wasted time is a precious commodity. Maybe you don't want to fill every minute of your day with tasks and lists and hacks and goal achieving effort. Maybe you want the kind of life where hanging out under a tree thinking long thoughts is a regular part of your week. Maybe that IS your goal.

Finally, I'm as much of a sucker for shiny office supplies as anyone, but no system that someone else makes is going to work better than the system you make and work and, above all, that you make work. It is easy? Again, no. It can be really hard. Odds are that, as adults all of you, you've already achieved the easy goals. The ones you have left are the tough ones, that require more from you than you're used to. Either they take more organization skills than you naturally have (though these skills can be taught and developed -- or I wouldn't have a this site!) or they have bumped up against some limitation or fear that you have to get around, or they mean making hard choices and prioritizing differently, or they mean breaking bad or making good habits.

My hard goal is easy for some people. And my easy goal may be hard for some of you. The way I think and plan and structure data is unique to me -- just like your way is unique to you. The only difference is that I've spent years learning about these different ways as part of my career. You only need to know about one... yours.

I'm always flattered and honored that some people want me to help them directly -- I believe I provide value (and if I ever doubt myself, I remember that corporations aren't sentimental -- if I wasn't bringing it, they'd have gotten rid of me already). But lots of my knowledge is slowing appearing right here for free. So buy an inexpensive spiral or book, grab a pen you already own, and get busy figuring your life out.

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