It’s hard to break bad habits developed at work

Kyocera smartphone device

Yesterday I was setting out on my daily walk, during which I generally listen to audiobooks (I’m currently enjoying If It Bleeds, by Stephen King). As I was putting on my headphones I started thinking that I didn’t yet have a blog post topic for this week. I generally have a few ideas percolating but as yet hadn’t come up with anything I thought was compelling. I decided to take the highly unusual step of leaving my headphones and my ever-present iPhone behind to avoid being distracted. That would help me focus on topic generation, right? I didn’t get 50 feet from my front door before I realized that I already my idea! Once again, I’ve realized that I’m still adapting to leaving the workplace just eight months ago.

The tethering begins! 20 years of my life with smartphones

As has been widely reported, many of us spend a lot of time with our smartphones. As an early technology adopter, I’ve had one as long as they’ve been available. In fact, I had one of the very first: the Kyocera smartphone model 6035, shown in the picture above. It was released in 2001, meaning I’ve had a “pocket tether” for 20 years! It looks like not much more than a Palm Pilot PDA (for those who remember those), but it had text messaging and even a simple web browser! Early on it was definitely just a novelty and not something that “owned me” in any way. Given the cost of cellular data and the very slow speeds of the same, that’s pretty understandable. No one else had one at work, either. So there was no pull coming from that source – yet.

In 2006, two jobs later, I started using a company-supplied Blackberry for work. Things were fine using it that first year. I was still working in R&D and while having access to email at all times was convenient, I felt no compulsion to use it much outside of work. Besides, Blackberry apps weren’t very compelling barring a few simple games. However, once I moved into a new role where I was supporting customer collaborations using not-yet-released products – generally high risk and short timeline, things changed. I began checking my email and text messages much more often. My team was working at odd hours sometimes and I needed to stay in touch with them. My boss wanted to be kept up to speed. My habits shifted to manage these expectations and needs. I started doing a bit of work-related travel again, and the Blackberry made it convenient to keep in touch with my coworkers and customers. This began increasing once I left R&D for a Product Management role. I soon learned that this was only the beginning…

The iPhone and my downward spiral into bad habits

The real step-up didn’t happen until I got my iPhone. In 2010 I joined a startup biotech company leading a nascent customer support organization. We were doing some truly exciting work, but it was also early days for our technology. Not everything went to plan for our customers and my team was out there training them and fixing anything that went awry. I needed to stay in touch with my team, my customers, and the management of the company. As I my remit was global in nature, text messages and emails started coming at all times as well as on the weekend, and I was obliged to deal with them. Time is money and nothing takes a simmering situation to an explosion faster than someone having to wait “too long” for a response. I was one of the key links in the chain that had to stay intact, and my behavior only got worse as our customer base grew. Few things get you moving faster than messages from the CEO of your company, I can assure you!

In that job and in my final role before leaving the workplace, I traveled a lot – most of which was international. This coincided with the true explosion of social media. That combination meant my iPhone increasingly became a tool to keep in touch with family and friends. I was on planes, in airports, hotels, and taking other transit often. Apps like Facebook, Foursquare, and Instagram became ways to spend idle time as well as to share my experiences with my network. Combine that activity with all the texting and emailing I did for bona fide work purposes, and you have an awful lot of time staring at a small screen. It never seemed “bad” to me, but it was certainly something I spent a lot of hours doing. It makes sense, right? I generally traveled alone and that meant filling the hours and hours of space between work obligations.

Like many people, these behaviors spilled over into my personal life when I wasn’t traveling. My wife, Lorri and I had a number of conversations over the years about “being present” when I was at home, particularly in those years when our daughter was young. I only had weekends and evenings when I wasn’t traveling to spend time with her. She had a great point, of course! I found it next to impossible to put the emails and texts from work aside, but surely she was right. I tried some of the usual remedies like leaving the phone somewhere else during meals, and also attempted not to use it before going to bed – with mixed success, admittedly. My never-ending device time was having a negative impact on my family not to mention myself. Nothing prevents you from going to sleep (or causes you to wake early) like receiving a bad work message at bedtime! Surely these habits stopped when I ceased working eight months ago, right?

Post-workplace realizations

While I no longer have the work-related emails and texts to manage since retiring early – which is great! – I realize that I still spend far more time with my phone than I should. On the plus side, I do use more of that time productively than I used to – audiobooks have been really great for me as one example. However, I realized yesterday how far I still need to go. I’ve developed a bunch of bad habits and I need to change them. I previously turned off most app notifications and that’s been great. Facebook is no longer on my home screen so I can’t see the notifications count badge. That’s not enough. I can and should do more!

Walking without my phone yesterday I realized several important and perhaps obvious things. First, left with only my thoughts, my mind wandered lots of places during that hour walk. I didn’t just think about the blog, but also about some potential business ideas. I also thought about next steps with my new YouTube channel, Two Sides of FI. I also must admit that normally I don’t just use my phone to listen to audiobooks during my walk. I’m often receiving text messages while walking, many of which I answer. What a distraction! Couldn’t I just use Do Not Disturb mode? Of course I could. But I’d still be able to pick up the phone and Google something I saw on my walk, or take a photo and maybe even post it online. Maybe I can’t be “trusted” to have a phone during these times? (I can’t – yet.)

My plan of action

I’m going to stop listening to audiobooks during my walk – at least for now. The core issue is that I am still driven to fill empty space with “stuff”, rather than taking time to just think and experience the world around me. I don’t mean to suggest this is some profound realization I’m making for the world here. Many others have come to the same conclusion! But for me this is an important step in dealing with a long-standing issue. I’m so attached to technology given my nature, and I love having ready access to my phone. But I don’t need it at all times.

With this behavioral change, it will mean I’ll be delayed in responding to some things and I won’t be the first to share others. I know that will be OK and as a result, I’ll have more “technology downtime” in which I can think about more important things. I’d say “or think about about nothing at all”, but that’s not how my brain works. It’s a noisy place but that’s who I am and I’m comfortable with that. I do think my mind could benefit from a lack of competition with audiobooks, text messages, and apps sometimes. I didn’t think about this topic at all during my “9 Secrets to Success in Retirement” article but I’m realizing these changes may be essential to my own success and well being!

How about you? Have you come to similar realizations and done anything in response? I’m open to suggestions! They would surely be of help to me and others, so please share. Thanks!

image credit: https://www.canadianbusiness.com/kyocera-6035/

What role does luck play in determining one’s success?

fortune cookie - fortunate about luck

I saw this image on social media early this week and immediately knew I wanted to write about this topic. Merriam-Webster Online defines luck (noun) as “a force that brings good fortune or adversity; the events or circumstances that operate for or against an individual” and “favoring chance”. There are certainly some clear-cut examples of how luck can be transformative by any measure – winning a massive lottery payout comes to mind. On the other hand, some among us suggest that barring exceptions like this, you are solely responsible for your success in life via hard work and persistence. But is it really that simple and there is no role at all for luck to play? Like most things, the truth is a bit more complex, and that is the subject of today’s post.

If you are reading this, you are among the lucky!

At a foundational level, there are a host of factors outside of our individual control that provide each of us with a starting point in life. This includes where and when you are born, your genetic composition, who is responsible for your upbringing, your access to clean water and good nutrition, and the nature of your early education. However, this short list is made up of truly vital elements that play an essential role in defining who we are, and what advantages we have starting out in this world. Just the fact that I am writing this article on my laptop and that you are reading it, means we had a number of things in our favor that the majority of human beings living now did not. So right here it seems there is a very real role for luck or good fortune to play.

It’s easy to underestimate or wholly set aside this fact, and it can also be a bit uncomfortable to think about it. While I didn’t come from a wealthy family, I had so much going for me right from the beginning: I was born in the United States in the 20th century, had two parents who cared for me, I had easy access to good medical care, healthy food and water, and was able to take advantage of public education from 5-18 years old. These things surely set me on a path with a higher likelihood of success in life, and I consider that to be a very fortunate circumstance indeed. Can you make it in this world without these things? Yes, and it always makes a good story to highlight those amazing and inspiring people who do. But surely those individuals are outliers, right? I absolutely consider myself to be a lucky person to have had these early advantages in life. I try to be mindful of this fact but it is so easy to take these things for granted.

The role for luck in the workplace

Let’s accept that the above circumstances are out of our control, and move on to the topic of our work lives. I’ve written a series of posts on what I view as the keys to success in the workplace. While the bulk of those articles concern behavioral choices we make, a number of times I made reference to the idea of luck and timing. It is my assertion that there absolutely is a role for good fortune to play in one’s career success. You can do all the right things, follow great practices and work hard, and yet your eventual achievements may well be quite different from someone else who follows similar (or even worse) practices, or who works not nearly as hard as you. I’m certain you will agree with this sentiment!

In my own career, I can think of a number of times where luck clearly had a role to play in my success. One that comes to mind is simply being in the right place at the right time, so that I had the opportunity to take part in a conversation, in which I suggested an idea that turned into a career-changing job. Another time, I emailed a former coworker out of the blue to meet for lunch after not seeing him for nearly two years. A week later I had a job interview at his company. As a result of that, I got the role, met my future wife, and found myself on a new fork in my career path. Numerous great and several very unlikely outcomes manifested from that one email! And of course there is the stock market. Like many, I’ve benefitted from market conditions, where the value of company equity I held proved to be very high (or in other times, not very much at all) due to factors having nothing to do with my own work or my company’s performance. We just rode along with the performance of the sector or the market overall.

Luck and the value of taking more shots on goal

Ice hockey phenom Wayne Gretzky is credited with the quote “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take”. I recently learned that his full statement continues on to “even though there is only a 1-5% probably of scoring”. That’s pretty impactful, no? Applied to the workplace, I believe you can absolutely create opportunities for good things to happen by your efforts – or as the picture for this post suggests, via hard work.* While you cannot “make” unlikely events happen, my assertion is that you can increase the chance that you will benefit from them when they do.

In my own experience, some of the ways I have most deliberately done so is via embracing change and developing practices where I can not only work hard, but smartly as well. This is a form of trying to “make my own luck” or more accurately, providing opportunities for lightning to strike – more shots on goal. I don’t mean to trivialize something so important, but I do think this is an apt analogy. By creating more opportunities for things to happen, my experience shows you will have a higher likelihood of being able to take advantage of the situations when they arise.

Real examples of putting it in practice

One of the simplest things I’ve found of benefit is just making sure people keep you in mind for opportunities. Most roles don’t go to “the best” candidate out there. Practically speaking, more often they go to “the best candidate that presents themself”. In my work life, I tried to leverage this in several ways. First, I ensured people at my company knew who I was and what my capabilities were. Part of that is indeed working hard and leveraging your strengths, but the rest is just networking. In addition, I’ve always actively maintained my network of contacts. LinkedIn makes that even easier, but even prior to its existence I always kept up with people. Merely by ensuring that I stayed abreast of what former colleagues were doing, I created new job opportunities on a number of occasions. Couple that with a willingness to embark upon new ventures, and you will create more opportunities for luck to impart its magic!

Another essential pursuit in my mind is to never stop learning. Constant skill-building and personal growth is vital towards creating chances for good fortune to strike. Not everything I’ve done individually was necessarily successful or yielded great outcomes. However, in combination, those experiences have certainly led to good things. While I was trained as a scientist and worked in that capacity for the first half of my career, I didn’t stop there. I moved into product management to build my commercial skills and broaden my experience. This had the benefit of enabling me to become a viable candidate for new roles, while also expanding my network. That led to a series of new job opportunities for me, several of which proved to be both lucrative, and also positive in terms of experience and job satisfaction. That’s not to say I wouldn’t have found success had I continued in R&D. But I definitely accelerated my career advancement and was able to take some additional shots on goal via these new paths.

One further thought: I had long planned to retire early from a traditional career, and took a variety of deliberate steps to enable this goal. I achieved financial independence in 2019, and left the workplace about a year later (8 months ago). While the path I followed would have taken me to that aim as planned, in reality I achieved my goal several years earlier than I had originally projected. Some of this is certainly due to good luck – very favorable stock market performance in recent years was one major factor. But other reasons included precisely what I’ve described here. I created opportunities for good things to happen by the choices I made. Those lucky events still needed to occur, of course. But I ensured that I had a better chance of being able to benefit from them when they did.

In conclusion

Does luck have a role to play in one’s career success? I absolutely believe that it does, and a good deal of this is out of your control. However, the ways in which you work can also increase the likelihood of your individual ability to benefit from unlikely things! We may not wholly “make our own luck”, but we can certainly stack the deck in our favor along the way. I would assert there is tremendous value in doing so and have been fortunate to experience the positive outcomes that can result. I hope that you have too and will continue to do so in the future!

* With apologies to my British readers – here the image refers to the US expression “busting your butt” i.e. working hard

On the origin of ideas – reflecting on what I’ve learned

a man's head with a maze inside it with a lightbulb at the center

In my regular milestones posts and in other pieces on this blog, I’ve written about the various lessons I have learned and observations made since leaving the workplace. The latest of these is the realization that recently, a number of new ideas have been emerging from the recesses of my brain. I’ve found this to be particularly so in the course of exploring new hobbies and experiences. What is the genesis of these ideas and how does that apply to my search for “what to do next”? Read on to learn more! I believe you will learn that you can apply similar strategies in your own life.

You can’t rush the creative process

If you’ve read my recent posts about the Two Sides of FI project or the ChooseFI livestream event, you already know something about my good friend, Eric. I’ve know the guy for 35 years at this point, so we talk really candidly. In one of our recent conversations, we spoke about the origin of ideas for new endeavors or business opportunities. The context of this was my frustration with figuring out “what to do next”. I took a lot from that chat, including the idea that you often need to explore a variety of things before the “great idea” emerges. In other words, only by taking the time needed to try out a number of interests, hobbies, and concepts, you create the opportunity for that truly great idea to emerge. He relayed this concept using his own experiences with starting up his architecture practice and his very successful YouTube channel.

I understood what he meant as it reminded me of my own experiences working in the lab as a scientist. Sometimes you had to try (and fail) with a number of different avenues before inspiration came to go in a (sometimes totally) different direction to resolve the question at hand. So it made sense on the surface but I hadn’t yet had a similar experience when it came to what to do next in this new phase of my life. While I had been thoroughly enjoying spending my time how I saw fit, I hadn’t yet found my great idea. Eric reminded me that this was totally OK! His own experience had taught him well that you can’t rush the creative process. Sometimes you need to try a variety of things, digesting what you’ve learned, and only then will the idea emerge.

What he said was of course totally reasonable! Admittedly, I’m a rather impatient person. Talking with him, I realized how much pressure I’d been putting on myself to figure out “what to do next”. When you think about it, that’s both silly and counterproductive! Unlike in my deadline-driven work life, where priorities were set by others, I am in blue skies territory here. There is no pressure to produce something or to achieve a specific goal, and certainly no deadline. My wife, Lorri has also been great about pointing this out to me regularly. Maybe it’s just my natural inclination, or simply a reaction to all the questions I get from friends and former colleagues? No matter the origin, the good news is that I’m learning. I realize that ideas cannot be forced and there is no pressure to do so. Ideas come on their own schedule and that’s just fine! So what are some ways I’ve found that help yield new ideas?

Generating new ideas requires a variety of mechanisms

One of the realizations I’ve had is that at least for me, ideas originate from a variety of sources – and often from a combination of the same. I’ve determined that there are three primary sources of late that are facilitating idea generation. Described simply, these are thinking, doing, and sharing. That all sounds pretty obvious of course, so what do I mean?

“Thinking” is the most obvious, I suppose. Simply taking the time to ruminate is certainly a wise approach to generate and explore ideas. I’ve always been someone that spends a lot of time in thought. But a very big difference that I’ve noticed in recent months is when and how I think. Without my former work schedule, my daily calendar has ample opportunity for concerted thought – not just handfuls of stolen minutes here and there. I’ve found that rather than getting right out of bed and starting my day each morning, I now tend to lie there 20-30 minutes just quietly thinking about an assortment of things. In addition, I’ve noticed that I’m taking more concerted effort to think without distraction. Particularly for creative and more abstract endeavors – I’ve definitely found this with app development, uninterrupted thought is vital. I’ve now realized how insufficient the time I gave to this task was while I was still working. I suspect I could have been much more productive had I been better about blocking time for thought, vs. checking off more tasks on that day’s to-do list.

“Doing” is something I’ve addressed often on this blog. Since leaving my career, I’m spending at least several hours each day pursuing my passions – in recent months this largely means iOS app development. I’ve realized a few things in the course of this pursuit that have made my “doing” much more productive. First, in treating this more seriously than merely a hobby ( as I’d done in the past), I’ve advanced in my abilities more quickly – not too surprising. I have also been good about pushing myself to work through problems, rather than set them aside because I had other things to do. Admittedly at times this has meant I’ve gotten behind on tasks around the house. It’s been well worth it though! Taking another piece of advice from Eric, I’ve realized I need to really prioritize my “making” vs. “managing” time. Most importantly, being more intentional in my doing has been a tremendous source of new ideas. I’m finding a greater ability to think creatively than I had been earlier on in learning these new skills. Several times I’ve even woken up with a new idea on how to solve a problem that I’d struggled with the day prior – or for a new app!

Lastly, I’ve learned a lot from “sharing”. Historically I’ve not been one to air my ideas on potential new pursuits with others without really thinking through them first – if at all. At least some of that was surely due to a fear of vulnerability. But what I now find is that I’m much more willing to discuss these ideas with Lorri, good friends like Eric, or even on social media with people I don’t know well, if at all. Unlike with my “old job”, there is no pressure relating to perception, or expectations based on my job level, etc. This openness has proven really productive for me. Sometimes it has helped me refine an existing idea. Other times, this dialogue has yielded a totally new idea. In fact, just this morning I woke up with a new business concept as a result of a conversation I had last night at Zoom Happy Hour with my college friends! Perhaps you’ll get to hear more about that before too long? ?

Wrapping things up

Idea generation is a vital part of many things, including the search for one’s next opportunity. While I know there is no pressure to do so on a given schedule – if at all, I am excited by the concept of coming up with something fun, interesting, and fulfilling. This might originate directly from one of the areas I’m already exploring, or be something totally different. In any case, I feel like I’m now arming myself with far better tools to generate those ideas.

If there’s one truth about retiring from the only career you’ve known, it’s that it produces an opportunity like no other to learn about yourself. It’s been a fascinating eight month journey so far, and I remain thankful to have this experience. No matter what comes next for me, I am sure it will teach me even more valuable lessons. Onward we go!

P.S. -For those who picked up on the title’s nod to Charles Darwin’s master work, bravo! If you haven’t read On The Origin of Species, I’d highly recommend it! There’s even a picture book version, apparently. How cool is that?

image credit: “Find the idea” by khalid Albaih is licensed under CC BY 2.0