Recently, I reached about five full years of working since graduation. They’ve flown by, and I’ve learned so much during these years. As a form of self-reflection, and perhaps as a source of advice for those that seek it, I’d like to summarise some of my learnings below. This is designed to be wandering and anecdotal, and therefore non-traditionally advisory in nature. Original content, naturally infused with a flotsam and jetsam of temporal inference.
The Knowledge Threshold
One of the most fascinating concepts to me is that of a perceived knowledge threshold; that is a level beyond which the marginal unit of acquired knowledge actually reduces one’s productivity (there’s me putting my degree to use…). I am a big believer that this takes place independent of the working environment. I’m not saying knowledge is not important; it is the foundation upon which further skills can be developed. However, as someone who acquired a lot of knowledge very young, I found that very little of it actually applied to the world of work. I’d never previously learnt Accounting, yet I had to perform a M&A role. I’d never previously learnt sales, yet I had to produce reports for colleagues to sell sponsorship opportunities. I say “learnt” intentionally, as I don’t think it’s the sole responsibility of the system to teach us such skills. However, knowledge we acquire through any means should be contextually relevant, so that it can be applied in a variety of different, unpredictable scenarios. You can know too much that’s not relevant, that you then realise very few people care about, it takes too long to explain for someone that has no idea, and is actually not necessary to function at full productivity. It’s really about knowing enough to fulfil the deliverables in your role and to simultaneously satisfy the additional utility you get from “other” acquired, potentially superfluous knowledge.
A related point to the Knowledge Threshold is the idea that relationships matter - they allow you to develop beyond the horizon that your knowledge in isolation encompasses. I have seen this play out in practice time after time in the last five years. At the most reductive, I see it as a form of “knowledge outsourcing” - we can’t learn or do everything in our day-to-day, however developing relationships with those that are acquiring knowledge you’d like in real-time can be directly provide you with knowledge you can’t acquire (e.g. running a startup for those that work in corporates). Moreover, I’d argue that relationships are most fundamentally about human interaction, which can be augmented, deepened and made more efficient via the use of technology. Such relationships can inspire and guide you, while replenishing sources of energy drained by the day-to-day, let alone yield personal friendships. Thirdly, a diverse set of relationships makes you a more rounded, culturally aware, and interesting person, which serves as an input to helping you to procure additional meaningful and relevant relationships. Some of the best learning experiences that I have had have been due to a combination of serendipity and intentionally meeting people who are from fundamentally different backgrounds.
Perhaps one of more controversial points in this article. I would separate this into two points: not being put in a box, and being difficult to box. I guess the two could be considered to be complimentary statements. Let me start with the harder to interpret - being difficult to box eludes to the idea of being somewhat of an enigma and difficult to read. There is naturally a balance to be struck between being approachable and available, while maintaining a degree of keeping your cards close to your chest. However, I do think that this fluidity in the way you operate is something that makes it hard for others to label you in a given way. Indeed, one of the current favourites to be the next President of France, Emanuel Macron is known to possess this trait, which leads to people defaulting to evidence of success rather than anything that is informed by conjecture and interpretation. Secondly, I would actively encourage developing a persona that makes it hard to place yourself in any particular “box”. We often struggle to categorise fluid profiles that often have many strings to their respective bows, yet this is the very profile that I’d actively seek the most learning from. It’s good to focus on doing one thing particularly well, but I have often experienced the feeling that being good at doing multiple things, including things you are learning outside of your core skill-set, is somehow a negative. This is particularly prevalent in the treatment of younger talent.
Acquire unique identifiers
Each of us is unique, but at times I have felt that we become homogenised too easily for a variety of reasons, many outside of our control. My learnings have led me to conclude that we should continue to add value to our own personal ISBNs, by seeking out new learning experiences. These experiences need not be necessarily credentialised in a way that has interoperable currency in the wider labour market (yet), but should have both rigour of learning content and delivery, and relevance to the real world. Too often, the labour market saturates itself by deploying a battery-farm approach to talent development, not encouraging talent to explore their own path, guided by both company interests and personal development goals. Those unique identifiers allow you to your own person, interesting to both colleagues and external stakeholders alike, all the while enhancing an employability profile that is increasingly harder to clone. In the long-term, this approach will most likely mitigate the need to identify sources of difference from others at the time when you most need it (e.g. when applying for a job). I also put this theory into practice, by asking anyone that I interview the question: “Who is…(INSERT NAME) as opposed to the “Tell me about yourself question”. In so doing, I give the opportunity to the candidate to explore a less anecdotal, more progressive, holistic answer, than one which is predicated solely on prior achievements and badges that come with the baggage of a social perception.
Develop your own talent
What you realise is that no-one will do anything for you - and nor should they. It should be the volition and zeal of each individual that curates their own learning path, guided by a set of learning principles and purpose. I often see my skills as malleable and fluid - I will never know absolutely everything I will need to know, but should recognise where I can build and level up my strengths, while doing just enough to be competent in my areas of weakness. As we progress through the education system, many of us are told to focus on our weaknesses, however since experiencing the world of work, we never have enough time or energy to focus on our weaknesses to level them off with our strengths. Therefore, I’d advocate taking a minimum viable approach to weakness plugging, and accentuating your strengths to the max. However, if you don’t do that for yourself, don’t expect anyone else to do it for you! Practically speaking, it’s part self-actualisation part just about managing. I’m a minimal input, maximum output kind of guy, so that will be a theme throughout this article. I often do the latter by reading a core set of articles about “tailwind industries” - those areas that I have / need to have a passing interest in, but not to a practitioner level. Through reading the non-traditional sources of learning e.g. articles over books, YouTube over Podcasts, I obtain just enough relevant information that satisfies my curiosity, but not in a way that has diminishing returns for my strengths. One for deeper-dive in a another article...
I can make an assumption that through discovering this article you probably will be acutely aware of what I mean by applying portfolio theory. I am a risk-averse person and always have been. Most of the choices that I have made so far in my life have been well rationalised, after a degree of analysis and a splutter of common-sense. As time goes on, one has to realise that such a profile has its limitations in the job market. By developing and building a portfolio of uniquely identifiable experiences, you minimise the risk of job displacement, and maximise the opportunity of career progression. I am someone who is a strong advocate of choice and competition in any market, and the job market is no different. In order to maintain relevance, I’d encourage the acquisition of a network of valuable experiences and positions of responsibility that demonstrate additional skills, networks and knowledge - especially for those that are risk-averse like me.
Be responsive and follow-through
Personally, I think this is a life principle that is a fundamental part of existing as humans. I’ll defragment into its constituent parts. Email is the most wonderful invention. I always think about what the next best alternative is, and struggle to come up with a solution. Moreover, it can be accessed at any time, on a number of devices. As a result, I have a rather no-nonsense approach when it comes to email and responsiveness (or lack of). I wouldn’t say that I am as obsessive as inbox-zero types, but I am remarkably close. Being responsive to the needs and asks of others conveys a number of intangible qualities that are hard to measure but have an archivable quality that people remember. When someone asks me for help, I do my best to help them if I have the want, knowledge and resources to do so. If not, I’ll reply back saying that I am not the most appropriate person to help, and will suggest the next best alternative. I understand that rapid-fire responses are not always achievable, however I think that it’s a hallmark of anyone I know, whose opinion I value. Following through for me is all about not over-promising and under-delivering - in this instance it’s better to say nothing at all.
Positivity, Positivity, Positivity
Potentially the most understated workplace trait is that of positivity, and more pertinently, the effects of a lack of positivity. Positivity / Negativity have contagion factors, the like of which I haven’t observed. When you work with colleagues that display a positive attitude, it has a beneficial multiplier on your wellbeing, job satisfaction and willingness to go the extra mile. I always reiterate that work and personal life are part of the same zero-sum game (there is another reference to the use of my degree!) and thus workplace environment matters, a lot. Once there, people are the primary variable. The Betari Box is a rather beautifully simple diagram that surfaces the link between attitude and behaviour, which although rather obvious, is often not acknowledged. Recognition of the Betari Box (and to be honest, just being a nice person) goes a long way to making the world of work more enjoyable and productive for you and for others. Going into work and thinking “I am going to do my best work today” is the feeling I strive to have.
Surround yourself with people that give you energy
A separate, but related point is that of where energy resides. I’m sure, like me, you have taken a whole manner of introvert / extrovert tests, like the MBTI. I’m not a big believer in their value, but one thing I did learn was that extroverts get their energy from other people. Although I’d self-identify as more of an introvert, people that know me would certainly affirm that I obtain the vast majority of my energy from other people; smart people that drive me to be better at what I do, inspirational people that provide me with guidance, positive people that enhance my job satisfaction. On far too many occasions to count, I have received injections of energy through meeting and engaging with a diverse community of people, so much so that I intentionally schedule a minimum of one meeting a week that I can look in advance of as one that I am looking forward to - due to the energy that it will provide me with. That indescribable feeling after an energising meeting is one that drives me on to better myself.
Value the intangible (BbA)
Benefits by Association (BbA) is another guiding principle that I live by. The benefits that an employee can bring nowadays can be evidenced by the tangible (traditional measures of success) and the intangible (networks, influence, ambition, positive externalities). Recognition in the realm of the intangible is hard, as they don’t deliver return on time invested neither as readily, nor as obviously as traditional measures of value-added. I for one am certainly an advocate of any individual that sees their value creation as being present in both the aforementioned. I'd also encourage hiring managers and employers more broadly, to start to better recognise these benefits that an empowered, well-networked individual can bring. Far too often have I seen the most serendipitous interactions yield the greatest business benefits, that would otherwise be either inaccessible, or extremely hard to access.
In the last few years I've increasingly recognised how important the principle of confidentiality in almost all situations. Whether it's a close friend or colleague needing your ear about their career challenges or you having access to a sensitive piece of company information, maintaining loyalty to be principle of confidentiality is vital. Not only does it mean you won't get into trouble - you'll generate trust and loyalty with others that actually will provide you with even more access to information, which you can use to make more informed decisions. It's also irrespective of whether you are client-facing or not. One additional thing I've particularly noted is that the use of social media outlets vastly increases the likelihood of a leak. It’s something I am naturally always conscious about.
Think like a consumer
I've always been consumer-minded, and regularly apply that mindset to whatever I do. Within the realm of education, I'd argue that there has never been a more pertinent time for us all to think like a consumer and consider how what we do delivers a return on education for learners. Aside from education, I've learnt to prioritise and focus on the things that will deliver the most value to me, for every £ spent and hour elapsed. I'm also an advocate for choice and competition, and thus thinking like a consumer here means considering all the choices available to you - some of which will be known and others unknown. Engage opportunity with an open mind as it might be the one that will lead to you being your best self. Shop in different stores to the usual - engage in non-traditional networks that may lead to learning that you otherwise would not be able to obtain.
Self-reflect and care enough
Over the years I have developed a strong contemplative spirit, mainly due to having a number of experiences that are arresting in nature. As a result, I often engage in self-reflective exercises after particular events to understand where I am right now, where I’d like to be, and what I need to do to get there. Let’s not pretend that these are the most enlightening of experiences, but they certainly can be useful thought-provoking activities. Through understanding your steady-state, I do believe you can make more informed choices and decisions about what to do next. One of my most pertinent takeaways was learning to care enough. As referenced earlier, I am a minimum effort: maximum reward kind of guy. This also applies to my emotional attachment with things that I do - not trying to be perfect in doing absolutely everything, and prioritising what will give me the most utility with the path of least resistance to get there.
Look after your personal balance sheet
An extension of valuing the intangibles, is the idea looking after your personal balance sheet as well as your personal income statement. Oversimplifying, I have tended to see how I can build a diverse portfolio of assets, including your own personal goodwill and the follow-on benefits that come from that. For example, I regularly engage in crowdfunding activities mainly as a way to engage with different communities, as well as learning through that very process about emerging companies that often provide products that I could consume in my everyday life. Furthermore, companies like Moneybox are also putting forward an attractive proposition for people of my generation to get into the habit of saving where and when possible. From a liability perspective, I’ve learnt from limiting my exposure to debt where possible, rather than the false security this can bring if you concentrate solely on your personal income statement.
Everyone’s making it up
Rather refreshingly, I have learnt that everyone is making it up. No-one has a pre-determined path to their vision of success and happiness and things happen rather circumstantially. I’ve learnt that to be adaptable and liquid to such change in circumstance is the best approach. It’s actually why in my view, the people whom I have learnt from the most, have often had the most varied backgrounds, rather than being a one-career veteran. Most honest people would admit that they are in the careers they are in now mainly due to a decision here and a decision there mixed with a bit of luck and risk, without a deterministic intention. In other words, open-mindedness (driven by both necessity and choice) can often lead to the most joyous career outcomes if capitalised upon.
To echo an earlier bit of phrasing, I do like to get maximum benefit for limited investment. In school, I got more enjoyment from getting a high achievement score with a low effort grade, than the same achievement with high effort. I apply the same principle to learning. I have learnt to anticipate what learning I will need for a given project, task, activity, meeting, and then try to learn the requisite information just in time for that encounter. We are all generally time-poor due to being bombarded with numerous distractions, which has only proliferated with social media. As a result, we can use this to our advantage to get learning materials and resources from multiple sources on-demand, 24/7. Therefore, we can achieve our own learning rhythms that are scaffolded in the way that we want, to give us only the necessary information when we most need it.
Situational awareness is often one of the competencies that employers embed as part of interview processes, and throughout the last five years I have understood why. Being able to be effective in different environments, with different stakeholders, each of whom will have their own bespoke approaches is difficult, but necessary. The only way I have improved my own ability to shape-shift is really through immersion (sometimes without choice!) into difficult environments where you have no choice but to adjust. I often reiterate that the world of work is both great and challenging due to human variations in background, mindset and values. The proactive approach I have learnt is to simply bank experiences that you have to remember the most effective behaviour you used to get the outcome you wanted.
Providing relatable metaphors
This one is very personal to me, and one that people who know me have become accustomed to. I regularly use examples and metaphors that the every man or woman can relate to which often relate to goods that are necessities (mainly food) and popular culture to put across an idea, concept or solution. The reason why I do this is merely because, rather selfishly, I pine for this type of approach when people relay complex concepts or problems to me. It really helps me to understand the situational context when framed in a relatable way. Sometimes I relate scenarios to similar events in current affairs (for example, the French election mentioned earlier in this post) or more trivial events on TV! Not only does this make you more relatable to a more diverse range of profiles, it adds an additional reference point for you to “be remembered”.
Doing well and doing good
Borrowed from my friends at the Circle of Young Intrapreneurs, and a little from my work to-date, I do believe that it is possible for business to profitably do well and do good for the world. The most prominent proponent of such an approach to-date outside of education has been Paul Polman at Unilever. It’s an approach that I am a huge advocate of, and much of my work to-date both inside and outside my current employer has been about promoting the idea that growth and impact go hand-in-hand. Not only is this approach commonly valued by many Millennials, it has resonance with individuals looking for wider purpose in their work. Doing well and doing good will continue to be a relationship that is only going to self-reinforce further in the coming years, even to the point where most companies have at least double-bottom-line reporting procedures. I have seen examples of where this has happened in the last five years, and only hope it will continue to thrive in the future.
The value of acknowledgement
Most of us pine for some kind of endorsement or acknowledgement, however little we admit it. I have learnt that not only do I greatly value being acknowledged, but that many others I have encountered do too. For me, this means anything from a subtle nod of gratitude to a pat on the back. However, I’d reserve the greatest impact of this acknowledgement to be before the fact, rather than a perennial post-hoc activity. I myself get a great kick out of helping people in any way I can. All I ask for in return is a slither of gratitude. On the flip side, I always remember the occasions when I could have been thanked for an idea, a contact, a bit of feedback that has helped someone without any expectation of a personal benefit, but wasn’t. Sometimes a little goes a long way, and with me it certainly does.
Never did I think that five years after graduating with a degree in Economics from UCL, I would be working for the world’s largest education company. I’ve learnt a lot during that time that make me the person I am today. I learn more from other people than I ever did before, and from more diverse groups than I had ever thought possible to encounter. I learn from a variety of sources than ever before, not just from books. I learn from experiences more than through pure content.
I’d encourage us all to maintain an open mind as to what we can achieve, where and how we can achieve it - as the answer isn’t as prescribed as it once was.