Work worries

It’s the weekend. And, there’s a lot of room for worrying about work. There’s probably some office politics. Maybe even some uncertainty about what your manager things about you. Or, perhaps, you’d like that long overdue big raise.

Here’s the issue – nearly everything we tend to worry about is stuff that we don’t really control.

There are 3 things we do control –

1. Investing in ourselves

2. Seeking out growth and learning in our work. (This is the start of a beautiful cycle. We love work that enables us to learn and grow. And, when we love our work, we do great work.)

3. Being conscious in our interactions with ourselves and others.

When was the last time we spent time worrying about these things?

Talent -> Skill -> Work ethic

Watch a bunch of 5 year olds playing a new sport and you’ll quickly be able to spot the ones with natural talent.

8 years later, however, it’ll get harder to tell which ones were the talented ones from the group you first saw. This is also because 9 out of every 10 who started out at 5 are probably not even playing in this group. The differences observed at this stage become less about talent and a lot more about skill.

A further 8 years later, you’ll be hard pressed to remember if the survivors (again 1 out of 10 you saw 8 years back) were among the original talented 5 year olds. In this group, everyone has above-the-threshold talent and skill. It is work ethic that sets them apart.

Talent is what we are born with. It has a lot to do with our mental and physical make up. Some bodies, for example, are just a lot more suited to long distance running. Skill is when we wrap process around that talent. We use that mental and physical make-up and coax it to do a series of counter intuitive things that enable the individual to perform that skill at a certain level of consistency. For a soccer player, it is often learning collect the ball and make a difficult pass/take a shot in one fluid movement. Talent helps speed up the skill acquisition process. And, the speed of the skill acquisition process determines if you have what it takes to become a professional in what you do. However, skill alone doesn’t do much in a professional’s life. Sure, prodigious skill could result in a brief spell at the top. But, again, it is work ethic that makes a top top professional.

You’ve seen this in every field. Michael Phelps is a great example of natural talent (he was born with an abnormal wing span) who was able to learn the basics of swimming very quickly. But, it is when his coach coaxed in an unmatched work ethic that the became a machine that won a record number of Olympic medals. Whether it is Roger Federer, Kobe Bryant, Jerry Rice, Rafael Nadal, Cristiano Ronaldo, Sachin Tendulkar, Michael Schumacher or Tiger Woods, you’ll be hard pressed to find a superstar who doesn’t have an awe-inspiring work ethic.

And, while we are at it, I’d like to call attention to two important points. First, talent isn’t completely overrated. It helps greatly in the first stage. But, the irony is that we often see above-average talent triumph prodigious talent because they have to work a lot harder on the process. I once met a ticket collector on the DLR in London who used to be a teenage player at Chelsea football club. He said John Terry (Chelsea’s captain and legend) was among the least talented and skillful players as a teenager. All the others, however, just lacked the discipline and work ethic he had.

Second, notice how being professional involves mastering yourself and things you control. Talent isn’t in your circle of influence. Skill sort of is. But, work ethic? It is completely what you make of it.

What should I do if I’m really struggling at work and feel incredibly down because of it?

Someone (anonymous) prompted me to answer a question on Quora. I thought I’d share the question and my response below. The tough part about such a question is that no one can answer it. The best (I believe) you can do is provide a frame that will hopefully help. The response has many of elements I write about here on this blog and all of what is recommended has been tried and tested. So, here’s hoping this helps the person who asked the question and anyone else who might be having a difficult time.

What should I do if I’m really struggling at work and feel incredibly down because of it?

I changed job about a year ago, and really haven’t been doing well in my new job, definitely not as well as I did in my old. Some things are solvable, or at least I can see how to solve them, e.g. project management. However, my job is very technical and requires a deep understanding of material that is complex. I cannot seem to get my head around it, my learning on it is very slow. For that I just do not know what to do, and feel hopeless. It is strange for me because my technical grasp in my old job was good, I don’t know why I am struggling so much here. I feel so demotivated and I do not know who to talk to, as people who do not work in the industry do not understand. I really want some constructive feedback and something concrete to work on, but my colleagues and management say “understanding technical issues should be a given” which makes me wish I could just quit and do something else, although I can’t actually afford to do that financially.


Dear friend,

Congratulations! This is an opportunity that can make you and really change your life.

What you describe is the essence of the toughest struggle we face as humans – it is part external, part internal and part existential. It is when the resistance seems to just overpower you and suddenly everything that you seem to touch seems to have failure written all over it. There is nothing harder. I have experienced losing both my father and uncle between ages 9 and 11 and then facing many difficulties as a consequence of that. And, yet, when I look back at a time when I went through something like this, I found death and it’s consequences easier to deal with. This sort of experience will teach you to be human and, in many ways, I think it’s those that learn to be human are those that learn how to be happy.

The toughest part about this sort of situation is that it comes with a seeming lack of options. You seem stuck in an endless spiral and rebuilding your confidence and your sense of self feel like a lot of hard work.

So, given the situation, it is great that you are asking the question. It is sometimes hard to step out of ourselves when we are having tough times. And, this is definitely a good first step. Well done.

Here’s how I would approach it.

Step 1. Examine your options and make a conscious decision.

It seems to me that there are 4 options –
1. Quit now (which you can’t seem to afford financially)
2. Search for a job now
3. Stay and continue status quo
4. Stay and change things

Out of these 4 options, I think searching for a job now could be an escape. However, given your current mental state, it is unlikely that is going to be fruitful. Since option 3 is not one I would recommend, let’s focus on the decision you have in front of you – To fix it or not to  try.

If you decide to fix it, then we proceed to step 2.

Step 2. Rebuild with a 1 month short term plan.

Give yourself a clear short term process goal, e.g., “I’m going to work hard on “being happy” and I’m going to measure my efforts on it.”

This will take 3 steps – 

1. Get the basics – eating, sleeping, exercising, and reading – right. Eat healthy food every 4 hours, kill alcohol and cigarettes for a month, sleep 8 hours every day, exercise 6 days a week (aerobic for 20 minutes) and spend 30 mins every day reading/listening to a book (perhaps start with your commute). When you start,  start with “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor E Frankl.

Create a simple tracker and measure yourself on these.

2. Journal your daily learnings. You are learning something every day. Reflect on it and write about it. Every challenge is learning and every day, we get better at dealing with them.

3. Recharge emotionally – via good times and volunteering. Spend at least a day a week with loved ones and get over yourself when you do (no moping / complaining). And, make 3 hours to volunteer at a place with underprivileged kids.

– This may not immediately change anything. You’re in a spiral, and as you face the inevitable frustration once you start trying, you’ll probably spiral further down. Allow yourself to hit rock bottom. It’s a liberating place to be when you realize you can’t sink any lower.
– Don’t take it personally – great footballing stars have gone on to become massive failures when they switched clubs. It isn’t just about you – it is also about the environment.
– As you might have gathered, this isn’t about the technical skills. Our first step is to work on your confidence and motivation. • Be willing to iterate and change approaches. This will help you with stage 1 – getting started and building your confidence. You’ll need to keep tailoring your approach as  some things will work and some won’t. That’s okay. It’s a long way up and there is no easy way out of it.

And, this is not going to be easy or quick. You will feel stuck and annoyed many many times as you work your way through the process. If that happens, welcome to the club. This is how we get made.

PS: I’d love to help beyond this Quora thread. If this thought process helps, that’s great. Even if it doesn’t, please feel free to write me on if I can be of help in thinking through this. Good luck and good skill!

25 things I’ve learnt from 4 years of work

As I transition to being a student again, I thought I’d write down 25 things I’ve learnt. It started as a list of 7 but, somehow, there seemed to be many more that were just as important. Brevity is clearly not a strength as yet.

1. You are better off focusing on your “learn-rate” and skills than rewards that look good. Your learn-rate is the intensity with which you learn – focus hard on it. Seek learnings from all sources – teammates, bosses, peers, subordinates, books, movies – just be a learning machine and forget about rewards. In fact, be actively wary of jobs that give you too much of what’s considered good too early.

2. Being so good you can’t be ignored is one part. It isn’t enough – Learning to market your work is just as important.

3. The train you are on matters a lot more than how smart you are. Luck matters. I had a unique opportunity in the last 2 years that enabled me to work across 5 countries in 3 continents. Sure, I didn’t mess the first one up but I’d be a fool if I attributed it to my skill. Being at the right place at the right time helps a lot. And, being skilled, positive and open increases your odds of doing that. Allow luck to find you. But, don’t rely on it.

4. You don’t get what you deserve. You get what you ask for and what you negotiate. A PS here – you get the best possible results when you find others to champion your cause and negotiate on your behalf.

5. Build a great board of directors and do it deliberately. You are the CEO of Me, Inc. Execute well and seek counsel over long term strategy. A big part of learning is learning from the experience of those wiser than you and spending time with a great Board can vastly improve your learn-rate.

6. Last minute work will kill you in the long run. Avoid at all costs.

7. A well scoped project has no need for long hours of work and definitely no need for weekends. Your best 0 error work is done when you are working comfortably with 100% focus. Remember – we only have 3-5 super productive hours in a day. Focus on getting the most out of them – the rest is gravy.

8. Get your shit together. Be organized and responsive. That doesn’t mean checking email at 2 in the morning. It means banishing procrastination, being orderly and being responsible. It is a way of doing things.

9. Things have a way of working themselves out if you put in the work. The law of unattraction works here. Stay calm and let the universe do its work. (This is bloody hard)

10. Drive your own review and feedback process. Work hard on not allowing weaknesses to get in the way by actively working on them, one at a time (e.g. a weakness every 6 months/year). Pay a lot of attention to your strengths. Your weaknesses are a way of reducing unforced errors and your strengths are how you hit your winners. When you are a beginner, avoiding unforced errors matters most. But, as you get better, your winners count for more.

11. You can only push so much. After a point, it becomes counter productive.

12. Take some time to understand human nature. Working with and moving people is where great change is made. You may not like all you see but you can definitely learn to understand and accept it. Understanding what drives people is always useful.

13. Understanding people is only possible if you take the time to understand yourself. Self awareness is a learned trait and it boosts our ability to deal with that other large beast – insecurity.

14. Work on a project outside work. At the very least, have a hobby that you care about. Use your weekends well. Good weekends drive good weeks. That said, don’t take this to an extreme. Let your hair loose and do an all nighter that messes with your sleep patterns often.

15. Actively build and maintain a support system of people not connected to work. I call this group framily – or close friends and family. Keep them engaged in your life by working on small projects with them, e.g. by volunteering together.

16. Sleep 8 hours, eat breakfast, and exercise nearly everyday. A healthy mind lives in a healthy body.

17. Book at least 1 good vacation and 1 great vacation during the year. It does wonders to your productivity.

18. Read. A lot. This is the single biggest driver of your learn-rate. If  you’re wondering how to make time, here are 3 ideas. 1. Cut down your TV time 2. Try audio books while at the gym 3. Use every minute of your commute

19. Mistakes are an inevitability. Don’t worry about the mistake – worry about the process that led to the mistake and focus on a creative, constructive and corrective response. I repeat that every time I make a mistake – focus on a creative, constructive and corrective response.

20. Every experience is what you make of it.

21. Your reputation is everything. Guard it carefully. If you don’t create and manage what you are known for (i.e. your brand), someone else will.

22. Try to never be guilty of a bad attitude. This is hard, especially if you are stuck in frustrating circumstances, but important.

23. Manage people the way you’d like to be managed and not on how some bad manager managed you. Don’t be a jerk.

24. Make the effort to understand the politics. Politics is inevitable if there are more than 3 people in a room. Avoid politicking if you can, however. Keep the game as clean and as meritocratic as possible. (A general rule when it comes to politics – if you’re unable to identify the sucker at the table, it is probably you.)

25. What got you here won’t get you there. This is the simplest and most important principle. If you’ve been doing well so far, the bar will soon be raised and you will have to use your accumulated knowledge and wisdom to figure out the next curve and reinvent yourself. Drive the change actively… what got you here won’t get you there.