Just over six months ago my sabbatical began. This mid-life professional break saw me leave EMC with great trepidation and uncertainty. I knew this break would be enjoyed but at a great opportunity cost. But I also knew it could change me in wonderful ways. So from my sabbatical’s start I was committed not to waste the opportunity.
In early June I started sharing with my friends and family the personal goals for this year-long break. I wanted to formulate a rough development plan that would prove to myself that a “break” from work could be as productive as employment. Its been six months since that plan was conceived. So it is appropriate now to give myself a half-year report card.
Below are my sabbatical projects, a grade, and commentary.
Personal development: write one blog a week. Execution: A-. Effort: A-. Except for a weekend or two break I have dedicated some time each week to personal reflection. I have committed to developing my writing by sharing the observations of that period.
Chinese studies: learn to read, write, and speak. Execution: B-. Effort: A+. Learning Mandarin has been complex, to say the least. My reading comprehension has soared. I struggle mightily with listening comprehension. But my commitment has been strong. I am surely studying more than most of my classmates.
Big data consultancy: meetings, website, blogging, and network building. Execution: C+. Effort: B+. I have presented half a dozen times to business and academic audiences. My professional blog‘s audience has grown steadily. I have been invited to join research groups and industry events based on my work. But building a reputation takes time. And a consultancy/advisory business would take many more months’ worth of reputation than I originally anticipated.
Exercise. Execution: B. Effort: B. I now attend yoga about three times a week. I hit the gym one time a week. I run about 10km a week. Not a bad regimen.
Open Data volunteer work. Execution: B. Effort: B. I have not been as involved with the Open Data Hong Kong group’s administrative activities as I might have originally liked. But I have made great strides in building a team of researchers that use ODHK’s data.
Entrepreneurial ambitions. Execution: C. Effort: C. Certainly for the first three months the idea of starting a business was only a shadow of a dream in my head. Now my energies are focused and I have a shot to create something successful. I was rudderless for the first four months but feel I am on track now.
Bonus project: big data community. Execution: A. Effort: A. I wanted to develop a network of people interested in big data analytics in Hong Kong. The work I was doing to build Information Incognita’s readership unexpectedly produced a group of students from three different Hong Kong schools that want to learn about big data. I started a Google+ community dedicated to Hong Kong Big Data. It today has 111 members and will have its first meeting next week.
I initially planned for this sabbatical to last about a year. That timeline was defined primarily by the one-year diploma curriculum at the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s Chinese Language School. But the one-year limit is heavily influenced by my dwindling finances.
With about half a year left, I have a few more things I want to accomplish:
I rarely drank coffee because I did saw no point and did not particularly enjoy the taste. I sleep well most nights and almost never feel tired. Not never, of course. I have certainly stayed out past proper bedtime on occasion and felt drowsy in the day’s quiet lulls. But 19 out of 20 days I never felt sluggish until before lying in bed. And I saw no point developing a coffee addiction if it could be avoided.
But my Chinese studies have introduced a kind of mental fatigue I had never before known. Even during my insanely busy periods at EMC–ten or more days of 12-14 hours of work a piece–my mental fatigue did not compromise my work. It was tiring, for sure. But not the kind of tiring that impacted my focus. But language study is different. One iota of sleep less than I need and I catch my mind wandering in the first hour of class. I wrangle it back into the room only minutes later to find it has again escaped. But coffee fixes this.
Friday was one of my worst days at Chinese class. Bad days are common for me. Some days I feel I cannot keep up with the teacher. Some days I struggle to speak in response to questions. Some days I want to quit. Friday was one of them.
Struggling in class unfamiliar to me. I was always a good student. But the feeling of failing is a utterly foreign. And most days in this rediscovery of student life I feel that way.
In some of my many musings on dimensions of intelligence I recognize the vast differences in people’s abilities to pick up new skills. Athletes with kinesthetic intelligence quickly master a new sport. Creative savants can piece together fascinating art with unplanned materials. And historically those gifted with language have been the first of their culture to cross geographic divides into foreign lands. Imagine the first European linguists using their genius to decode the strange tongues in North America with zero context or reference.
In language there is surely a continuum of capabilities defined not just by experience but an innate intelligence. It spans from the genius Europeans that first spoke with southern Africans and native Americans to the dullards that cannot imitate or comprehend a strange uttering. I am not so pessimistic as to sort myself completely at the simpleton’s side of this range. But in a class full of people interested in learning a new language, I know I am one of the closest to it.
I really want to try my hand at running my own company. Perhaps a dozen times in the last 20 years I have realized an idea that could drive a successful business. In the past few months of this sabbatical almost half as many ideas presented themselves in discussions with friends or alone on my patio with a beer in my hand. But I have not (yet) brought these ideas to fruition. I am stranded on the wrong side of a chasm between people that work for someone else and people that are self-employed. I am a worker bee.
Thinking about starting a business I have had time to reflect on the relative merits of business ownership versus corporate employment. On this subject my friend Stuart recommended to me Robert Kiyosaki’s Rich Dad’s CASHFLOW Quandrant at my sabbatical’s start. Kiyosaki’s book separates income earners into four quadrants: those that work for someone else, those that own and run a business, those that own a business someone else runs for them, and those that invest. These last two he recommends for high return with minimum effort. But success in them requires some experience business fundamentals. That experience usually comes from running the business.
People want to run a business because of the perceived freedom. And most people would agree that being your own boss could provide a type of freedom that working for a large company never will. However, Kiyosaki points out that the specific goal should be financial freedom. Indeed, people that own and run a business are just as likely as employees to be a slave to long hours an short deadlines. So, before charging into a business to develop myself personally and professionally, it is worth considering the relative merits of being a large company’s employee versus a small business owner.
Recently I have spent a lot of time working with students. I am advising students at two different schools as they work on their final year projects. Thinking about their futures–the blank canvas of their career before them–has given me cause to think about my first 15 years working for big business. I have much to be proud of. And quite a few mistakes to regret.
But my mistakes do not haunt me any more. I turned them into something precious that I hope betters me and improves my decision making.
We all have core values that guide our daily activities and influence our personal development. My values are precious to me. Some of them were born like gems from the intense pressure and heat caused by colossal failures. Others are expelled like a pearl wrenched from an irritation not unlike sand in a clam’s maw. My professional errors have made me a better coworker. Its a shame I had to learn these lessons the hard way.
So, here’s to the class of 2014 and all those just recently added to the workforce. And should this blog last another fifteen years, I offer this record to myself at age 54. What would you add to the list?
Three weeks ago I flew to the states for a brief visit with friends and a prospective employer. On the flight next to me sat an Asian man of my parents’ age. He appeared to be in his early 70s and was enjoying a rich life in retirement. He had just returned from a cruise on the Danube and was in Hong Kong visiting his daughter’s family. Apparently these two trips interrupted a busy golf schedule near his home in San Francisco.
We talked aimlessly and without substance for a period. Then I stumbled upon a topic of deep interest to both of us. I asked him, “If you could go back in time and offer a younger version of yourself advice, what would that advice be?” He said, “I would tell myself that control is an illusion.”
I knew this sabbatical was going to test my mettle. I knew it would slosh around emotions like a great hurricane. Hell, I was warning myself about these vicissitudes only a couple weeks into this hiatus. My Mandarin studies are a known source of emotional disruption. The effects of professional enterprise–individual projects and the occasional offer to re-enter Big IT–are difficult to predict.
At sabbatical start I planned for “about one year”. But I admitted to friends and family that the right job offer might change my mind. There are so many things I want to accomplish in a sizable and growing organization. I want to build an organization of trust, accountability, reward, empathy, and positivity. I would not pass up a chance like this. Such an opportunity landed on my doorstep several weeks back.
A few months ago I was at a bar with friends visiting me in Hong Kong. I had just left work for this sabbatical. I was then (as I remain) cautiously optimistic about my decision to take a sabbatical. I was talking with a random stranger at this bar. I told him my position. And he said the following: “the problem with you Americans is that you have no gap year.”
So much of the civilized world takes breaks after college or between other big life changes. Americans generally stitch different phases of life together tightly without a pause. Then we hit our midlife and wonder how we got there.
I know how lucky I am to enjoy this sabbatical. Not many people can try the same. But I suspect the benefits of a gap year apply to smaller projects and changes, too.
We find ourselves on ladders placed in front of us at a young age. We climb the ladder daily trying to improve our lives and those of our loved ones. But we rarely step away and ask if we are on the right ladder. Our actions became habit. And our habits allow us to sleepwalk through the same program day after day.
How often do you take a different route to work? When did you last participate in a hobby or activity that was radically different from your previous activities? Have you ever told a sushi chef to bring his best food without offering any suggestions or limitations on his decision? These little breaks in behavior and changes in habits can open our eyes and minds to new possibilities. And, indeed, nurturing a habit of change can become part of our character.
Having a gap in our lives to ask about the last 10 things we did helps us think of the next 10. But the gap need not be a year. It could be a moment behind the wheel at an intersection. A minute in a park considering our destination. My sabbatical is going to come to an end. But I hope my ability to step back and see the big picture remains.
An ex-colleague but still-friend of mine, mailed me after my article Live Like An NBA Star. He told me how much he recognized self-awareness as a key to personal development. And he expanded on it with his observations. It got me thinking on the topic, which is the subject of today’s post.
First, recall my friend Greg’s comments on what makes the best prospect for the NBA. He said most great basketballers’ egos have been buffed to a mirror shine by years of adulation. Only a few can receive that praise and retain the ability to see their flaws and areas where peers exceed them. Prospects with this quality are more likely to succeed in the NBA. Because, in addition to starting with the right talent, they are sure to improve.
If self-awareness is akin to modesty, then surely their opposite are narcissism and arrogance. Along that line a graduate student at Massey University in New Zealand, Jeff Simpson, recently showed the effects of narcissism on employment. Presumably Simpson’s studies in psychology helped him identify narcissistic tendencies. But it did not take a PhD to measure narcissists’ success in the workforce:
None of those 10 [narcissists] remained employed at the company for the full two years.
While those numbers every egomaniac may fail, anyone that has read of Larry Ellison and Steve Jobs knows differently. So, clearly some people’s egos drive them to great successes. But the hidden cost of that management style may be seen in Apple today. It was certainly in Jim Collins’ Good to Great. In short, a company built around a single ego always fails after the ego departs.
So, controlling our egos is critically important for most people’s success. And even if you are the next Steve Jobs your stockholders will thank you if you build a company that is not centered around your ego. Self-criticism is a piece of the broader category of emotional intelligence (EQ). Some authors conclude that EQ is more important to success than IQ.
Like the dimensions of intelligence of which I have previously written, I suspect we each excel in some of the above and need improvement in others. For instance I believe I am strong in numbers one and two, acceptable in number four, and I am consistently working to improve myself in number three.
The article I linked above contains some recommendations of improving EQ. But I am developing my own philosophy for self-improvement with respect to EQ:
Many of my post-employment blog posts have revolved around my Chinese studies and how they have challenged one of my weakest capabilities (language). Today was one my worst days. And the second toughest was on Friday of last week, when I walked out of class an hour early. The last week has not gone well for me. It briefly passed my mind to consider quitting class today and instead spend my time on another project. But I remembered previous advice I shared here. I think I am now back on track.
I recognized in early June that I would have good and bad days. Our mind tends to project the future based on our most recent experiences. From one catastrophic day we are blinded from seeing two months of success. In trying to see the big picture, I am reminded of a humbling, true and somewhat funny witticism: no matter how amazing or embarrassing you were today approximately one billion Chinese people could not give a damn. That really puts things in perspective.
My bad day started as others have: I had misunderstood previous instructions and arrived unprepared. While everyone else reviewed their mock final test I sat there on my own. That was today’s first hour. It was not fun to see everyone else getting prepared for Wednesday’s final while I sat on the sidelines. My mind was in a bad place, for sure. One thing that helped me get back on track today was an exercise in positivity I developed with guidance from Mush Panjwani. Specifically Amy Cuddy’s posture advice had a dramatic effect on my mental state when I followed it in our ten minute break. That stuff works.
But today I made another discovery with respect to my Chinese studies. I need to change tactics. And this is fairly easily done.