I’m still working through what I can provide that plays well to my strengths.
So far, I know my strengths are the following:
I’m especially good at understanding psychology, technology, and complex topics – I’m not the best at this, but I can become better at them easier and faster than others
I also think I’m good at providing my technology consulting and advising services. I’ve been fighting myself to some extent by going after this model of creating a product as if that’s the best and only way of doing something that lasts, people appreciate and brings me repeat business.
However, there are plenty of professions where I can make a difference long-term that require no products. For example, if I’m able to build relationships and affect one person’s life, I’m not only affecting that person, but also every person that he comes in contact with. I may even have a larger benefit for society since my actions would have a much larger domino effect: Every person whom he affects will in turn affect others as well.
In listening to Jim Collins, the author of “Good to Great” on The Knowledge Project podcast episode 110, I realized that morality and philosophy, the choice in how you’ll conduct yourself, what relationships you build and how you nourish them, are a far worthier approach to life for me than any other. It’s what will make me know that I’ve done the best I could in life.
So, I’m left with the idea of serving others, helping them in some way, through the talents I have. Those talents can be in the form of tech services, whether that’s consulting, teaching, advising or guiding.
A family member recently told me that what I’m looking for may very well be right in front of me. This idea has come up again a couple of times in podcasts and books I’m listening to and reading, respectively.
So, what’s right in front of me?
The obvious first thing is that I like helping people solve their problems. I already wrote about this in my previous post on the same topic. I even tend to do that in cooperative games with the kids, when I volunteer for various charities, or in how I handle situations on trips or with friends. For example, just a couple of weeks back, when I was hiking with friends, we hit a snag. We had completed most of our hike and had a pretty big hike up a steep slope to complete a 9-mile trail. A lot of us were tired and couldn’t decide. I was able to boil down the problem to costs (our remaining energy reserves) and benefits (knowing we’d completed the trail) to help everyone decide what to do next.
I both make decisions and help others do the same just fine. I do especially well when helping others make decisions. Heck, I even do this for our kids when they can decide what board game they’d like to play with us. When they can’t decide, I help them boil it down to a few quick decisions and we get unstuck.
Anything I do, any service I provide is about being that filter, that outsider or disinterested third-party who steps in to help clarify what needs to be reviewed, understood, so that a decision can be made or a problem can be solved. I help guide the decision making and finding the solution to the problems at hand.
Another interesting idea I heard on the The Knowledge Project podcast episode 110 was avoiding timelines for getting through an issue, reaching your goal, or resolving a problem. This is somewhat foreign to me, but interesting. The process that Jim Collins described requires looking clearly at the what’s within your control, the hard problems and challenges, as well as accepting what’s beyond your control. Then you focus your efforts purely on working on what’s within it. This’ll eliminate disappointment and focus the effort on the work you CAN do.
In other words, timelines become irrelevant when you are doing work that’s experimental, or when too many variables that affect the timeline are out of your control. I think you can still work within timeframes, but those are more about activities and assessments. For example, I may set a week to gather information about whether to help a particular customer. Then at the end of that week, I can assess whether I have enough information to make a decision. If I do, then I make it. If I think that there are more areas to consider, then I use another cycle to assess.
What I would need to avoid is the gutter of being stuck in constantly assessing, neve getting to a decision. This is Analysis Paralysis. There’s never enough information to make a decision. You can always gather more information. The key to me seems that how much time you spend gathering information is dictated by the external time-driven necessity to make a decision. For example, if I’m disarming a bomb, I only have so much time. If I have to choose a car for leisure and I’m not pressed to buy one now, I don’t have to push for a decision at a certain amount of time.
The key takeaway about timelines is avoiding the expectation for a particular result by a specific time. If I don’t know whether what I’m doing will work, then I shouldn’t say that I’ll have x% of the job done or the market owned by December 1st! So long as I’m pushing forward, making progress in milestones or lessons learned, and believe that I’ll succeed, then the purely-guessed deadline is irrelevant.
So, if my goal is to help as many people as I can with my services, setting a timeline of “by the age 60” is unnecessary and may very well lead to disappointment. However, if I say that my goals require that I’m always helping at least one person and I consistently take steps toward helping them through my services, then I’m making progress toward my goal and I’ll know that I’ll eventually have a large effect on society.
This idea goes hand in hand with what Jim Collins talked about regarding ambiguity avoidance vs. risk avoidance. His argument is that most people don’t become entrepreneurs because they prefer to have less ambiguity about what work they’ll do or when they’ll get a paycheck. It’s not that those who choose to be employees are risk averse. They’re ambiguity-averse. Both endeavors have their risk and, arguably, in both cases you can take steps to reduce your risks. In starting your own business, you can reduce risk by testing the market for various solutions and sources of income. When employed, you can reduce ambiguity of your sources of income when you invest your money, buy a business you operate on the side, etc.
However, having a job means there’s no ambiguity about what your role will be, the support you’ll have, the money you’ll get. Whereas, as a startup, you have no way of knowing if your idea will work, which of your services will be the best fit for the market, and whether any of it will pay off financially, emotionally or psychologically.
This makes me think that a way to get around being ambiguity-averse is to find a source of income that’s more reliable, then work on other things that are experimental. So, what if I invest my money in bonds and equities so that I can get a regular income, while I continue to experiment with services I can offer until I find what works and how I can scale. Or, I could take on a job that requires about half of my time commitment so that I may have a regular paycheck. This reduces ambiguity. Then I can focus again on my experimentation.
The idea ties well with not setting timelines for a particular result when you experiment. I have to accept ambiguity and embrace it. By embracing ambiguity, I won’t be afraid of it. I’ll expect it and know that I may not get the results I aimed for within a particular timeline. Heck, I may not get the result at all, but I will at least get some results. I can then evaluate those results and see whether I need to course correct or revise the expected future outcomes.
So, what does all of this mean insofar as what are my concrete next steps?
My ultimate goal isn’t clear to me. I’ve certainly always wanted to live an inspiring life where I positively affect and change one person and company at a time. That’s vague enough that I can do pretty much anything.
And I still want to be of service to people.
May be the answer is in embracing ambiguity I would also accept that I don’t know how I can affect the world in the way I want. I only know that every step I take has to be a moral one based on my philosophy of helping people.
For family, that’s an easy direction to follow. I just have to make decisions that help each family member, each of my relationships with them, every day. I help the kids learn to build relationships and themselves up to be whatever they want to become. I’m there for Veda and Ferchie to help them with their work, emotional needs, and ensuring we have a joyful life together.
For work, that means I continue to pursue helping colleges with their registration process. If I see that’s fruitful for one college, then I do it for another and another and find a process to make it easier and better for colleges each time. If I see it’s not working, then I try another experiment, another idea in using my talents and services in the market of technology implementations for nonprofit or for-profit organizations.
I think this mirrors what Collins talked about around building something to last vs. sell. My focus is not on selling the business or syphoning money out of the company, but to create more fuel in the form of profits to do more good through my services. At the small scale, that means I have to have profits to pay myself to keep going, to at least cover my costs and have enough left over to conduct more experiments. Once I find one experiment that pays off more and more, then using that fuel to create repeatable processes that will help me scale up. That’s Collins’ setting up the flywheeel.
The key for me is that I must continue to experiment and believe that one of these experiments will pay off. It’ll take time, but eventually one will work and help me put my talents to the best use in building an idea and a company that will last beyond just me. That may mean changing enough minds and lives that those lives will exponentially lead to more changes in society. It may be that I actually create a services company that’ll do this without me ever being present.
But my focus is the here and now, not just the future generations and what they’ll think. What can I do for the people, companies, organizations and the world that I live in at this moment? How can I make a difference here and now, irrespective of whether I’m specifically remembered for it or profit from it?