The Prepared Mind: The Importance of Going Fallow

[Article originally published on Medium] 

Photo by  Zbysiu Rodak

Photo by Zbysiu Rodak


The concept of the sabbatical is based on the Biblical practice of shmita. Relating to agriculture, every seven years, a sabbath (or rest) year was ordered to give the land a break from agricultural production. In a similar way, our minds, like the soil, need rest to be able to continue to grow and provide.

A “sabbatical” has come to mean an extended absence in the career of an individual. But there is a hook — most people come back from these experiences still forcing production in exhausted soil. They feel under pressure to fulfill some goal, e.g., writing a book, or somehow operationalizing their experience for others, or even productizing it in some way. We have a very hard time just doing something for the sake of doing it. With proverbs like “an idle mind is the devil’s workshop” or references to “killing time” allowing ourselves to go fallow does not come easily.

In his 2009 TED talk, The Power of Time Off, designer Stefan Sagmeister explains how he decided to start closing the doors of his New York studio for a full year every seven years:

“Like many things in my life that I actually love, I adapt to them and over time, get bored by them. And in our case, our work started to look the same.”

Sagmeister first thought about taking a work sabbatical when reflecting on the typical flow of our lives. He estimated most people spend 25 years learning, 40 years working their career, and then 15-plus years in retirement. But, Sagmeister proposed, what if we cut off five years of retirement and interspersed them in between the working years?

When he experimented with this new schedule, the result was both creatively and professionally beneficial. As he explains in his TED talk, in that first sabbatical year, Sagmeister created a film, explored new design styles and materials, and experienced new cultures and ideas.

“The work that came out of that year flowed back into the company, and into society at large.”


A sabbatical is an opportunity to unplug and press pause. It doesn’t have to be a full year or 6 weeks. Giving yourself an opportunity to pause is about disrupting the inertia to which we most often succumb. Most of us can’t opt out and go completely fallow, but we can create space for an intentional shift in thinking. Changing our thinking changes our decision making, which eventually leads to behavior change. We can embrace an opportunity to gain perspective that enables a mental shift in attitude, thoughts, or emotions that otherwise would not have occurred. We all need to create that kind of shift for ourselves, on a daily basis.

Here are five signs that you’re due:

  1. If you used to love your work and now you can’t stand it.

  2. If your boss or partner tells you things aren’t working out.

  3. If you’re constantly distracted by your phone or social media.

  4. If you’re facing a challenge or adversity.

  5. If an opportunity comes knocking on your door that you want to follow.

Creating space could be signing up for a class, up-leveling your business, getting better something, or saying a truth that may not have been said before. The whole idea is to connect to yourself. If you had an extra five minutes or an hour, what could you do differently? What would you say? Who would you be with? Those are great cues about what would work for you.

Start by creating space in your day. We constantly shift and go into autopilot. We succumb to the back to back meetings, the constant stream of email and information coming our way. To take a few minutes to journal your thoughts and feelings at different times of the day can be really informative. Your mood improves when you consciously bring thoughts into the moment.

Consider checking in with yourself first before checking your social media feed and ask, “How do I feel? What am I thinking right now? Is this where I want to be?”

When you check in, tune out others and focus on yourself. We’ve been counseled since we were children to be first, be right, to win — none of that has anything to do with slowing down. In racing against the clock and against others, we didn’t learn how to care for ourselves very well. There is a reason why we are told on airplanes to take care of ourselves first. We have to learn to take care of ourselves to be the best self we can be.


Sabbaticals are all about rejuvenating and acquiring nutrients. They are a time to explore topics you’re deeply passionate about or try something new outside of your comfort zone. But if you read through this article and still feel like it’s impossible for you, there are ways to get the benefits of disconnected, unstructured time off without risking your job. Not everyone can take a big break in their life or career. Start with a day, or an hour.


Dr. Matthew Sleeth, author of 24/6: A Prescription for a Healthier, Happier Life, has indisputable proof that life doesn’t have to be quite so frantic all of the time: himself. His experience changed his life, leading him to write his book — a guide to refocusing your life around the principle of taking a much-needed rest day.

“For most of my life, I worked in emergency medicine. Ten years ago, I was given a 24-hour Sunday shift. I felt wiped out, and I was dreading Sunday each week, so I decided to take Saturday off to have a very simple day to read and explore my purpose in life,” recalls Dr. Sleeth.


Learn how to disappear, for a bit. Start with 90 minutes twice a week.

It’s a powerful trick that lessens stress, increases productivity, sparks creativity, improves work/life balance, and changes your perspective of work.

Medium member Josh Spector reveals his tricks and what you’ll get from pulling your own disappearing act.


According to Harvard psychologist Shelley Carson, one of the best ways to enhance your creative output is to separate work and consumption. As she explains, even taking an hour a day for a “mini-sabbatical” to be in an “absorb” state where you gather information and inspiration without doing any work can be an easy way to get new ideas.

If you’re feeling stressed, unmotivated, and burnt out, there’s no point in trying to just push through.

Instead, our best ideas often come when we’re not working. And a sabbatical–no matter how long–is a fantastic way to rest and rethink how you’re approaching hard problems.

If you find yourself blaming your (mental) tools, do something about it. Learn about mental models, learn from how Craftsmen talk about how they learn and get better at what they do and more importantly, take ownership. Moving forward requires change but change by itself does not mean that you are moving forward. As Socrates said, “The un-examined life is not worth living.”

Christine Haskell, Ph.D. is a leadership consultant and adjunct faculty at Washington State University. She helps busy leaders take responsibility for their learning and development. She writes on the topic of “Craftsmanship and The Future of Work.” sharing lessons from master craftsmen and women on personal and professional mastery, is due out late 2019. Sign up for her (semi-regular) newsletter here.

The prepared mind: How to Approach Craft

The Prepared Mind: How to approach craft


Photo by  Franck V.

Photo by Franck V.

This past weekend, I attended a conference focused on one of the latest buzz terms “transformative tech.” I’ve been tracking them since they started and it appears to be nice marketing to VCs for—you guessed it—tech, but specifically tech “for mental health, emotional well being, and human flourishing.” For this group, there needs to be electricity, or a battery involved so the work of teachers, coaches, seekers, etc. are not emphasized.

One of the speakers was extrapolating on how one day, we will have tech that “gets us to flow” or “helps us jump quickly to a meditative state.” This is not the first time I’ve heard this idea being discussed and I listened intently, thinking through the potential consequences of what amounts to “skipping the [learning] journey” of learning and moving right into integration.

Learning, the kind that moves us forward in our lives and work, is fraught with struggle. There is struggle to accept a new idea, reason with it, and integrate into a new, broader understanding. Reasoning is a skill that is in precarious decline as reliance on data increases. What depth of experience (and insight) might be lost if technology could help us avoid the ungainliness, awkwardness, anxiety-prone beginner’s mind of a new idea or activity? What would be lost if we were able to skip important phases of developing mastery?

In an age obsessed with tech, repackaged ideas, and Instagram soundbites, some of the great tech thinkers get lost to history. I’d like to share some learning from the great Richard Hamming. Hamming was an American mathematician whose work had many implications for computer engineering and telecommunications. He programmed IBM’s calculating machines. He was involved in nearly all of Bell Laboratories' most prominent achievements. After retiring, Hamming took a position at the Naval Postgraduate School and devoted himself to teaching and writing books. He delivered his last lecture in December 1997, just a few weeks before he died from a heart attack on January 7, 1998.

You can see it here. I call out some of his major ideas as they relate to my research on Master Craftsmen, how they get better at what they do, and what we (in tech and in business) can learn from them.


How to Work With Craft In Whatever You Do

Insight, skill, or the state of consciousness gained by daily, deliberate practice, are rarely handed to you on a silver platter. Einstein argued that genius was 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration. Picasso referred to “inspiration [existing] but needs to find you at work.” While we can acknowledge that luck plays a role, we often use that as a crutch to avoid doing what we can do to intelligently prepare for opportunities. Perspiration and work are, in my opinion, integral to effective integration.

We only get one life, “and it seems to be it is better to do significant things than to just get along through life to its end,” writes Richard Hamming in his 1997 book The Art of Doing Science and Engineering: Learning to Learn. The book and his 1986 lecture, 'Luck favors the prepared mind', You and Your Research, explore how we do great work. Specifically, he refers to “Nobel-Prize type work.” Nobel level work raises the standards of what we thought possible and teaches us to think in new ways. In many ways, Nobel prize winners are the craftsmen in their respective fields.

From cooking to coding, there are methods to engage in order to do something with Craft. That’s how LEAN, DMAIC. 6Sigma and my other methodologies came to be. There are also mental disciplines we can learn for more effective thinking. But, where to start?

Hamming suggests that preparation is what separates the good from the great. This means the way you live your life—the extent to which you intelligently prepare—makes a huge difference in what you can accomplish.

As human beings, we tend fixate on what we can see with our eyes. We think focusing on the concrete is being objective. It’s how we rationalize. When we look at transformations in other people’s lives, we see good luck, natural talent, unfair advantage, or the right connections. We concentrate on the visible signs of opportunity and success. We do this with organizations too — and it’s an illusion. 

The key to any change is insanely simple. Stop fixating on the external and focus on smaller, internal changes. It is the difference between grasping at an illusion and immersing yourself in reality. Reality is what transforms you. 

The major objection cited by people against striving to do great things is the belief it is all a matter of luck. I have repeatedly cited Pasteur’s remark, “Luck favors the prepared mind”. It both admits there is an element of luck, and yet claims to a great extent it is up to you. You prepare yourself to succeed, or not, as you choose, from moment to moment, by the way you live your life.

Hamming, Richard R. Art of Doing Science and Engineering: Learning to Learn (Page 209)

Luck is always part of the equation. Philosophers, political theorists, and strategists have long acknowledged the large role that luck plays in every aspect of our lives. Even Nicolo Machiavelli, the cataloger of each and every lever that a prince can pull in the pursuit of power, acknowledged that “I believe that it is probably true that fortune is the arbiter of half the things we do, leaving the other half to be controlled by ourselves.” What was true in Italian politics centuries ago is just as true in management today.

Yet if life were all about luck, the same people wouldn’t repeatedly do great things. Galileo Galilei did many great things. So did Newton and Einstein. Bill Gates, Elon Musk, and Jeff Bezos have been successful in multiple sectors. The list goes on.

When someone repeatedly achieves greatness, it is because they prepared in advance to recognize, work on, and fill in the blanks when necessary. This is the essence of intelligent preparation and the foundation of deliberate practice—greatness is a byproduct. So often, in the attempt to optimize and recreate, we forget that.

Intelligence comes in many forms. A lot of the time it’s not easily recognized — a lot of people who repeatedly do great things were poor students. IQ does not ensure academic success. Being smart is nice but it’s better if you know how to apply your knowledge.

Believe that you are capable of doing work that matters.

How you regard yourself and your ability to contribute determines how you experience the people in your life, the work you choose, and the tactics and strategies you choose to solve problems.  

With the belief that you can do work that matters, why is that most of us spend time on work that doesn’t matter?

…direct observation, and direct questioning of people, shows most scientists spend most of their time working on things they believe are not important nor are they likely to lead to important things.

Hamming, Richard R.. Art of Doing Science and Engineering: Learning to Learn (Page 210).

If what you are working on is not important and aligned with your values—and a lot of what you are working on, what you are saying and what you are doing isn’t either. Think about that.

Is health important to you? When was the last time you invested in it?

Are relationships important to you? What do you do to invest in them?

Do you value the process, really? When was the last time you valued, really valued the many, many small decisions that enable you to achieve the results you are after?

The question you need to ask yourself if why are you not working on and thinking about the important problems in your area? How can we expect to achieve great things if we are not working on the right problems?

Be willing to be an outlier. 

Think of this as confidence meets courage. You might look like an idiot because you are doing something new. You might not be immediately understood by those around you because you are challenging the status quo.

[Claude] Shannon had courage. Who else but a man with almost infinite courage would ever think of averaging over all random codes and expect the average code would be good? He knew what he was doing was important and pursued it intensely. Courage, or confidence, is a property to develop in yourself. Look at your successes, and pay less attention to failures than you are usually advised to do in the expression, “Learn from your mistakes”. While playing chess Shannon would often advance his queen boldly into the fray and say, “I ain’t scaird of nothing”. I learned to repeat it to myself when stuck, and at times it has enabled me to go on to a success. I deliberately copied a part of the style of a great scientist. The courage to continue is essential since great research often has long periods with no success and many discouragements.

Hamming, Richard R.. Art of Doing Science and Engineering: Learning to Learn (Page 211)

Embrace horizonal goals. 

You have to see excellence as a pursuit not an outcome. This isn’t as easy as it sounds but it as an essential feature of engaging in Craft.

Without such a goal you will tend to remain three degrees off course. You will be headed in the right direction, almost. Three degrees seems small, but that is when you stay the course and say to yourself, “I’m ok, I can still see the hill I’m headed toward.” It isn’t until twenty years later that you realize something isn’t right. You can no longer see that hill. The cumulative effect of being three degrees off course for a long period of time means that it’s either time to backtrack, make a pivot toward that hill, or try some other approach to get you back on course.

…with the goal of doing significant work, there is tendency for the steps to go in the same direction and thus go a distance proportional to the number of steps taken, which in a lifetime is a large number indeed.

Hamming, Richard R.. Art of Doing Science and Engineering: Learning to Learn (Page 211)

What most people think are the best working conditions, are not—learn to dance between failure and fame.

Constraints can lead to innovation. But constraints is just another word for reality, or the lack of the ideal (budget, resources, environment, or other qualities you are seeking). The feedback of reality in order to keep your feet planted on the ground.

Age seems to have the effect it does. In the first place if you do some good work you will find yourself on all kinds of committees and unable to do any more work. You may find yourself as I saw Brattain when he got a Nobel Prize. The day the prize was announced we all assembled in Arnold Auditorium; all three winners got up and made speeches. The third one, Brattain, practically with tears in his eyes, said, “I know about this Nobel-Prize effect and I am not going to let it affect me; I am going to remain good old Walter Brattain.” Well I said to myself, “That is nice.” But in a few weeks I saw it was affecting him. Now he could only work on great problems.

When you are famous it is hard to work on small problems. This is what did Shannon in. After information theory, what do you do for an encore? The great scientists often make this error. They fail to continue to plant the little acorns from which the mighty oak trees grow. They try to get the big thing right off. And that isn't the way things go. So that is another reason why you find that when you get early recognition it seems to sterilize you. In fact I will give you my favorite quotation of many years. The Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, in my opinion, has ruined more good scientists than any institution has created, judged by what they did before they came and judged by what they did after. Not that they weren't good afterwards, but they were superb before they got there and were only good afterwards.

Work with your door open.

I notice that if you have the door to your office closed, you get more work done today and tomorrow, and you are more productive than most. But 10 years later somehow you don't know quite know what problems are worth working on; all the hard work you do is sort of tangential in importance. He who works with the door open gets all kinds of interruptions, but he also occasionally gets clues as to what the world is and what might be important. Now I cannot prove the cause and effect sequence because you might say, “The closed door is symbolic of a closed mind.” I don't know. But I can say there is a pretty good correlation between those who work with the doors open and those who ultimately do important things, although people who work with doors closed often work harder. Somehow they seem to work on slightly the wrong thing – not much, but enough that they miss fame.   

People who do great things typically have a great drive to do things.

…most great scientists have tremendous drive. I worked for ten years with John Tukey at Bell Labs. He had tremendous drive. One day about three or four years after I joined, I discovered that John Tukey was slightly younger than I was. John was a genius and I clearly was not. Well I went storming into Bode's office and said, “How can anybody my age know as much as John Tukey does?” He leaned back in his chair, put his hands behind his head, grinned slightly, and said, “You would be surprised Hamming, how much you would know if you worked as hard as he did that many years.” I simply slunk out of the office!

Focused investment of only one hour a day can double your lifetime output. 

Intelligent preparation is like compound interest, the more you invest, the more situations you can handle, the more you learn how to do, so the more you can do, etc. The advantage of investing in just one hour a day to learning new things is an overlooked gem hiding in plain sight.

This isn’t about who works the hardest but rather who focuses their limited energy on the right things. Learning things that (1) change slowly and (2) apply to a wide variety of situations could be a better use of time than learning something incredibly time-consuming, rapidly changing, and of limited application.

Hamming dedicated his Friday afternoons to “great thoughts.” Setting aside time to think is a common characteristic of people that do great things. Not only does this help you live consciously it helps get your head out of the weeds. The rest of us are too busy with the details to ask if we’re going in the right direction.

Consider that advice against a well-intended behavior not truly lived. Google’s 20% time was eventually abandoned. Only about 10% of Googlers were using it. But that didn’t matter much as long as the idea of it exists, according to Google HR boss Laszlo Bock in his new book, "Work Rules!"

Tolerate ambiguity.

Believe and not believe at the same time. You have to believe that where you work is the best place in the industry, and capable of improving.

It took me a while to discover the importance of ambiguity. Most people like to believe something is or is not true. Great scientists tolerate ambiguity very well. They believe the theory enough to go ahead; they doubt it enough to notice the errors and faults so they can step forward and create the new replacement theory. If you believe too much you'll never notice the flaws; if you doubt too much you won't get started. It requires a lovely balance. But most great scientists are well aware of why their theories are true and they are also well aware of some slight misfits which don't quite fit and they don't forget it. Darwin writes in his autobiography that he found it necessary to write down every piece of evidence which appeared to contradict his beliefs because otherwise they would disappear from his mind. When you find apparent flaws you've got to be sensitive and keep track of those things, and keep an eye out for how they can be explained or how the theory can be changed to fit them. Those are often the great contributions. Great contributions are rarely done by adding another decimal place. It comes down to an emotional commitment. Most great scientists are completely committed to their problem. Those who don't become committed seldom produce outstanding, first-class work.

Still Interested? Check our my Hamming compendium.



Photo by  Holger Link

Photo by Holger Link


Not in his goals but in his transitions man is great.  —Ralph Waldo Emerson

Last week, I had the pleasure of moderating a panel at a local tech event on the topic of career transition. People are still writing to me about how much they enjoyed the session, which is both gratifying and humbling. Because of the level of interest, I thought I would share some of the key takeaways so others could benefit.

I’m often asked for book recommendations and I covered two main ideas from William Bridges 1980s book Transitions. People are often surprised by by the titles I promote . It’s not that I don’t read current information, but if it’s not adding a ton of new perspective, I stick to solid classics—and this book, in my opinion, should be in everyone’s business book library.

First, I think it’s important not to use the terms “change” and “transition” interchangeably. 

Change is situational. It is the external event that is taking place, a new strategy, a change in leadership, a merger or a new product. The organization focuses on the outcome that the change will produce, which is generally in response to external events. It can happen very quickly.

Transition is the inner psychological process that people go through as they internalize and come to terms with the new situation that the change brings about. The starting point for dealing with transition is not the outcome but the endings that people have in leaving the old situation behind. Getting people through transition is essential if the change is actually to work as planned.

This is when, with virtually every project at any level, we often find ourselves thinking: this would be such an easier process if the people weren’t involved!

Second, a process change is always accompanied by a psychological process. The psychological process is often accompanied by challenging emotions like confusion, ambiguity, and distress. We often confront because Western culture offers few rituals or rites of passage to mark us through whatever stages we find ourselves in, people often try to skip from the loss and pain of an ending directly to a new beginning, marked by enthusiasm, hope, and acceptance.

Related to this point, there is a wonderful passage in the book that I read to the group, which I’ll share here:

We usually fail to discover [the need for rituals] at an ending until we have made the most of our necessary external changes. There we are, in the new house or on the new job or involved in the new relationship, waking up to the fact that we have not yet let go of our old ties. Or worse yet, not waking up to that fact, even though we are still moving to the inner rhythm of life back in the old situation. We’re like shellfish that often continue to open and close their shells on the tide-schedule of their old home waters, even when they have been transplanted to the laboratory tank or restaurant kitchen. —William Bridges

Photo by  chuttersnap

Photo by chuttersnap

That image, of opening and closing to tides (environments) experienced in past roles is a very visceral one for many, including myself. We’ve been where the waters are warm, cold, nurturing, and inhospitable—leading us to seek the right “climate” for our needs. But do we react well when we get there, or do we bring old habits, information, or practices with us, closing us off to opportunities in the present.


The panelists spanned multiple sectors from non-profit, technology, healthcare, and gigging. Each person brought vulnerability and truth to the conversation as they shared their career paths with the audience. Their bios are here, and worth a look.

Rebecca found her way through constraints. Her partner’s role took him out of the country, she followed seeking alignment with her skills in a new industry. Constraints can yield inspiring journeys and force us to tap into creativity we didn’t know we had.

Blair sought to gain greater depth as a physician by exploring it through other functions: policy, research, teaching, and business. Depth, the ability to gain deep perspective from multiple sides of a problem, helps people gain great insights that help lead industry thinking in new directions.  

Dan’s background in education and his volunteer interests in teaching led him full circle after a career in enterprise technology. Sometimes it’s possible to link our career expertise with something we’ve been nurturing on the side.

Amy’s path was largely intuitive, following her pleasure and the kinds of projects they sparked her deepest curiosity, from writing copy for Bing’s Search page (those juicy images with interesting factoids, that was her!), to a Jungian based Fairy tale Factory helping people learn to tell stories, to writing and advocating for a broader spectrum of male fashion at Nordstrom, to her current copywriter role at Microsoft. Sometimes we can see a direct line to where we are going, sometimes we can’t—but there are no dead ends. Everything we do is in service to the direction we are heading.


In each case, there was a “breaking point” or a “crisis point” where an inner voice was starting to express itself. Was this the climate in which I want to stay? Am I willing to hide the biggest piece of who I am or what I have to offer in order to fit in? Are these the kinds of politics, or is this the kind of game I want to play?

At some point, our true selves come to save us from ourselves. They help us make the decisions we need to make, suffer the distress and ambiguity of change, and lead us toward our pleasure. All of the panelists, whether they designated these phases rituals or not, took time to discover what they really wanted. They considered their unlived life and weighed the consequences of going the course. And, they created a passage. They went on sabbatical, or sorts, even if it was just the week between jobs, to provide a clearing for what lay next.

They made space for a new beginning.

Christine Haskell, Ph.D. is a pragmatic researcher, coach, and consultant focused on helping busy leaders take responsibility for their learning and development. Her book Craft Your Life, sharing lessons from master craftsmen and women on personal and professional mastery, is due out late 2019. Sign up for her (semi-regular) newsletter here.


Thought Series provides actionable ideas and anchors for reflection on your life or your work.


In 2015 I founded CHC with the bold goal of helping people engage uncertainty in order to lead change. Since then I’ve had the amazing opportunity to speak on the topic to many people here and abroad.

One of the ways we learn how to engage uncertainty is through experiential learning projects. I’m often asked how uncertainty or risk is viewed from leader to leader or organization to organization. The answer is, it’s not really that different. There are way more similarities than differences when it comes to dancing with uncertainty in order to drive change.

I’ve found that there are five universal truths about embracing uncertainty that transcend geography, gender, and organization type:

The first truth is that you can define uncertainty in driving change however you want. It doesn’t matter what you call it: risk, threat, doubt, indecision, ambiguity. Most people share a similar desire which is to do the right thing for their themselves, their teams and their organizations. When it comes to engaging uncertainty each person has their own idea of what is comfortable, tolerable and acceptable. There is no right or wrong way to define or describe uncertainty. It is what it is for you and for you alone.

The second truth about engaging uncertainty in driving change is that uncertainty is part of our daily lives. Your ability to dance with it will change as your environment shifts and changes. Things like new managers, new connections, new roles, new interests, life circumstances like births and deaths, health (yours and others), will all impact your ability to embrace uncertainty. Empowerment can be found in recognizing and accepting that what you need now in this moment is very different than what you will need 12 months from now, or five years from now.

The third truth about engaging uncertainty in driving change is that small changes lead to big changes. Thinking small is about being dedicated to a niche or segment. Most organizations are focused on scaling, and idea of changing the world reigns strong (toward whatever end). We want to utilize innovation to make huge changes in the world so that we can matter. Hopefully we make our mark and make use of the great gifts that we’ve been given. From the lens of the interior mind, scale may not be the most prudent way to proceed. The neurological response seems to be strongest when we pay attention to the micro-level, when we ask “what do I need to do to change my neurology first?” The result is wildly different than if we were to design for scale. It is creative, relevant, and potent.

The fourth truth about engaging uncertainty in driving change is that it is virtually free, which is great news because everybody loves free. You don’t have to hire a professional coach, find a therapist, acquire advanced degrees, get advanced certifications, join a meditation group, or purchase a ton of books. If you want to sell tickets, make a web site, or produce a record, there are is a robust set of platforms to choose from. These are all options you can choose but you do not have to do any of them. There is no shortage of opportunity. What’s missing is that we haven’t shifted gears enough from how business was done just 20 years ago to how it needs to be done today and in the future. We haven’t gotten out our own way and chose to take the leap.

The fifth truth about engaging uncertainty in driving change is that it requires you to…take the leap. Taking the leap means you are improvising, vulnerable, and not sure what you are doing will work out. A human being, and only a human being can engage uncertainty. The act of being generous with ideas, and structure, and connection in ways that have never been done before. What we need to understand is that society is lining up to reward people for doing things differently, for becoming outliers, for thinking unconventionally. There are many attributes associated with these kinds of people, none of which we were taught in school. We were taught to receive a map and follow instructions. The death of the industrial age as at the heart of the uncertainty we find ourselves in. And the work you do matters. Changing yourself changes the work you do, the connections you reach toward, and the impact you have in the world. It’s your choice to find what level of uncertainty you can engage toward driving change. Some days you might make choices that support your definition of change. Other days you might make choices that sabotage the type of change you’re seeking. But change occurs in the practice of engaging. It’s awkward at first. But every day you get the chance to choose, again, and again, and again.


The Prepared Mind: Our Current Problem

To tackle the wicked problems of our present and future, we need to embrace a strange, counter-intuitive irony: as organizations across all sectors continue to create and adopt technologies like artificial intelligence, employees need to stay relevant by increasing their subjective intelligence.

As production work and other jobs automate, the skills people need to stay relevant are becoming elusive.

As production work and other jobs automate, the skills people need to stay relevant are becoming elusive.


The structures that supported organizations and strengthened the American workforce for generations have been gradually breaking down in every sector. My research on master craftsmen and how they gain mastery helps connect the dots on this new dilemma, and might be the place to seek initial solutions.

It’s a cliché now to even reference the pace of change, exponential growth, and irreversible catastrophes as necessary catalysts for adaptation. We all know that tomorrow’s work will be very different than today’s — we just think tomorrow will remain forever “in tomorrow.” Regardless, in between these recurring reports a truly new change has appeared–one that creates tremendous opportunity with one hand, and keeps the employees from taking advantage of it with the other.

To fully understand this quandary, we need to understand how it took shape. Three primary structures that both support and perpetuate longstanding American traditions are weakening: education; workforce training; and the traditional 9–5 job, and the assumptions of advancement that go with it. Decline in each of these traditions has eaten away a different corner of the economy. All three areas wear down, spread and merge together with technological change, enabling a brand new problem: a job market mismatched to the skills and needs of the workforce.

According to McKinsey, the global consulting firm, the upcoming shift of workers to new occupations “could be on a scale not seen since the transition of the labor force out of agriculture in the early 1900s.”

This dynamic has put American workers in a dilemma. Job reports continue to show bursts of new jobs from time to time, but a range of solid opportunities geared to the future is not broadly reachable for most people. In fact, my research suggests that those best able to adapt and thrive in the years ahead will be people who learn to learn well, and the discipline to think like master craftsmen. However, the American system of advancement has never been designed to prepare people for these requirements.


Previous generations could expect a structured, predictable path for career advancement that could last most if not all of their working lives. After attaining a specific degree, you were categorized into a current job, and worked to advance within the company or industry. Not anymore. Today, an employee’s average tenure is just over four years. Companies are increasingly hiring people on a part-time or contract basis.

Enabled by technology, gigging has become more and more mainstream. It has been estimated that 94 percent of the jobs added to the economy from 2005 to 2015 were in temporary, contract, independent, or freelance work. A recent Marist/NPR poll found that approximately 20 percent of Americans’ jobs are untraditional — a figure that could rise to 50 percent in the next ten years.

Since 1995, the percentage of workers engaged in part-time or freelance work has almost doubled.  Image Credit:    Laura Zulliger

Since 1995, the percentage of workers engaged in part-time or freelance work has almost doubled. Image Credit: Laura Zulliger


Stability has another enemy: skills connected with a specific occupation are becoming outdated faster than ever. By one estimate, the “half-life” of skills today is about 5 years, and quickly shortening. As digital skills become increasingly required across every job function, employees will have to update and invest in their skill sets even more often. Thus the decline of the 4-year degree in favor of targeted, flexible learning alternatives.

With as much as 45 percent of job activities automated with existing technology there is tremendous pressure for employees to complete with machines to do work faster and cheaper — or decide to change occupations altogether. Pearson, an ed-tech company, estimates that 7 of 10 workers today are in occupations that will see increasing uncertainty by 2030. In McKinsey’s view, the shift of workers to new occupations “could be on a scale not seen since the transition of the labor force out of agriculture in the early 1900s.”

Maruti Suzuki plant--621x414.jpg


Common sense would dictate that organizations spotting these trends would want to increase internal training efforts to maintain the relevance of their workforce. Some do. Employers like Facebook, Apple, Walmart and the Container Store are just a handful of organizations with notable approaches to internal employee training. Others like General Assembly, Galvanize, and various coding boot-camps are experimenting with new ways to train employees with skills targeted to an emerging need in a specific company.

The last Annual Engagement report published by the U.S. government suggests that 90 percent of leaders believe that building capabilities is a top-ten priority for their organizations; 8 percent track the programs’ return on investment; and, one in four employees get anything out of training.

Internal training programs are increasingly hard to find. One recent study found a 28% decline in employer-paid training across the United States. According to another, Annual Engagement analysis by the U.S. government, 90 percent of leaders believe that building capabilities is a top-ten priority for their organizations; 8 percent track the programs’ return on investment; and, one in four employees get anything out of training.

The lack of training opportunities disproportionately impacts lower-skilled and lower-educated workers, who are the most vulnerable to automation, and those workers who would benefit most from knowing in advance the outcome to which a specific type of training would lead. But make no mistake, lack of upskilling will impact more than just manufacturing. This dilemma will touch every profession from law, healthcare, psychiatry, education — just to name a few.


For most of us, advancing in our lives and careers in a climate where much of what we do is being automated will require different skills — specifically, the capacity for imagination and deep learning. A recent report on the occupations of 2030 showed that 80 percent (8 of 10) top jobs will require creativity, an understanding of systems, and judgment. It is becoming clearer that employees need to start to seek out their own pathways toward training, if not outright invent the job they want to have.

Starting at the turn of the 21st century, the U.S. job market entered a decade of upheaval. As can be seen from this graph, at various times many more jobs disappeared than were created–the worst being just after the 2008 recession. Since 2010, those wild swings have begun to level off, leading to today’s uptick in demand for skilled workers. Image Credit: New America and Bloomberg

Our current systems are not built for just-in-time effectiveness to face adaptive challenges. According to Dr. Anthony Carnevale, head of Georgetown University’s Center for Education and the Workforce, the U.S. spends just $8 billion a year on training, compared to $500 billion on higher education — making the U.S. an education nation, not a training nation.

Adult training programs have had an uneven and often disappointing record of effectiveness. One reason is that they are almost always chasing a problem rather than preventing one which makes them appear out of step and experienced as irrelevant. Another reason is that there is little political will, within the organization or even more broadly across society, that ‘retraining’ is a solution, even as we learn that the ways we’ve tried to retrain workers have not been that successful.

When confronted with this challenge we too often opt for the easy way out or choose challenges with which we are familiar, leaving the hairier problems for the next leadership change. Some of the most promising, innovative approaches to credentialing and adult learning — such as “nanodegrees,” virtual and augmented reality, alternative MBA programs, coding boot camps and MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) — attract people already digitally sophisticated or highly educated. In other words, there are so silver bullets on what works at scale to retrain employees for jobs of the future. The challenges to upskilling are especially acute for low- and middle-skilled adult employees — a group that receives little support from employers, and faces many obstacles to advancing, stay up-to-date on market trends, and search for opportunities. They must, therefore, navigate this territory on their own, despite having less financial cushion, scheduling flexibility, core skills, and belief in the payoff of pursuing training in new skills.


Volatility in any part of the market hits the low and middle-income the hardest placing them at the highest risk of poverty. In a recent report from the Federal Reserve, researchers found millions of families experiencing significant month-to-month fluctuations in pay. Many of us are already there. Data from the report suggest that 40% of households have no emergency savings and 44% of the adults who responded said they could not pay for a $400 emergency expense without selling something or borrowing money.

As mentioned, support structures (e.g., education, the 9 to 5 workday, and workforce training) that have long held up the economy have not kept pace with the changing nature of work. As employees opt out in greater numbers toward independent work and with increasing turnover in traditional employment, the safety net for many is still built around employer-provided benefits. Workers struggle to find affordable healthcare, start retirement accounts, and many lack disability or unemployment insurance entirely.

A worker saddled with that kind of economic instability has little time to consider self-development. It is not within the realm of possibility to forgo income in order to study. They likely have little savings enabling him or her to invest in starting a small business, undertake an uncertain job search, or invest in a career pivot. Regrettably, taking those kinds of chances is quickly becoming the way to advance one’s career prospects.


The World Economic Forum predicts that upwards of 65% of children entering primary school today will eventually work in jobs that do not even exist today. How are schools preparing tomorrow’s adults for a world like this?

44% of the adults in a 2016 survey said they could not pay for a $400 emergency expense without selling something or borrowing money.

We are on a crumbling foundation. A recent study by labor economists found that “one more robot per thousand workers reduces the employment to population ratio by about 0.18–0.34 percentage points and wages by 0.25–0.5 percent.” Despite students’ optimism about their prospects and confidence in their abilities, most employers found recent college graduates poorly prepared for the workforce. About a third of respondents expressed no confidence in training and education evolving quickly enough to match demands by 2026. Some of the bleakest answers came from some of the most respected technology analysts. A primary concern remains about employees’ capacities for applying knowledge in real-world settings, critical thinking, and communication. And those are just a few of the “soft skills” considered increasingly important.

A focus on nurturing unique human skills that artificial intelligence (AI) and machines seem unable to replicate: Many of these experts discussed in their responses the human talents they believe machines and automation may not be able to duplicate, noting that these should be the skills developed and nurtured by education and training programs to prepare people to work successfully alongside AI. In an economy that is getting increasingly dynamic, most schools continue to teach as they always have: with students working by themselves at their desks instead of collaborating on creative projects.

Respondents of the study suggest that workers of the future will learn to deeply cultivate and utilize individual creativity, collaborative activity, abstract and systems thinking, complex communication, and the ability to thrive in diverse environments.

In a 2017 book called “Robot-Proof: Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence,” Joseph E. Aoun, president of Northeastern University, challenges universities to revamp their entire approach to education. He illustrates a new discipline called “humanics,” which he believes would help students prepare for jobs that will increasingly exist alongside automated machinery. The study of humanics would stress three core skills: data literacy, technological literacy, and human literacy. Aoun also calls for more experiential and applied learning, including regular internships and work experience.

If Aoun is right, how far should schools go? It might be prudent to invest in coding and computer science skills, but since we can’t plan for what change is coming — but we can prepare for change itself. If schools adapt their curriculum to emphasize computer or IT skills, and computers themselves do those jobs within such a short time, won’t those skills be obsolete? Timing and relevance are certainly big concerns. But education needs to last a lifetime, not be targeted toward the half-life of a job or a particular technology. In other words, adult workers should get the same sort of in-depth studies that a youngster receives in elementary school.

If you can’t see yourself doing what you are doing for the rest of our life, you will never advance.

To make such a change really work, those elementary school studies must be truly in depth, and foster a capacity for change and innovation. But in elementary schools, where standardized testing is emphasized, failure is often seen as unacceptable, which discourages thinking outside the box. The current system is designed to “educate people out of their creativity,” says Sir Ken Robinson, author of “Out of Our Minds: Learning to Be Creative” and other books about revolutionizing education. “If you’re not prepared to be wrong,” he said in a 2006 TED Talk, “you’ll never come up with anything original.” This sentiment is echoed by the last carousel craftsmen in America, Art Ritchie, put it “If you can’t see yourself doing what you are doing for the rest of our life, you will never advance.” Surprisingly, some of the most vocal critics of education’s status quo are teachers themselves. Regardless, our schools continue to line desks in neat rows, distributing memorization-based worksheets reinforcing the student as the empty vessel to be filled rather than a whole, creative person with perspective.


As technology continues its path of creative destruction, of one sort or another, not everyone will need to be an entrepreneur to get ahead. They will, however, need to be entrepreneurial. The tumultuous changes we just described in the economy will require more people to be self-directed, seeking out their own opportunities and charting their own path through them. Reid Hoffman, founder of professional social networking site LinkedIn, calls this needed mindset “the start-up of you.”

To the institutionalization mind of memorized education and organizational conformity American ultra-independence feels like a distant myth, but the pendulum is swinging back. “The whole concept of a 9 to 5 job for life was a historical quirk,” says Susan Lund of McKinsey. “In 1900, 45 percent of people in the United States were self-employed. Today, with the rise of new employment and wealth generation platforms such as Uber, TaskRabbit, and Airbnb, it looks like we’re returning to that.”

The rising percentage of older people in the workforce over the coming decade presents a double challenge: As skills become obsolete with increasing speed, more and more adult workers will need retraining. But most retraining programs still haven’t proven effective.

Image Credit:  NY public library

Image Credit: NY public library

In spite of the many articles being written about the economy’s turn (or return, it seems) to an entrepreneurial future, there is a disconnect between trends and the preferences of the American worker. An Economic Innovation Group (EIG) report found that there is actually a decline in the number of businesses being started, the number of people moving for job opportunities, and the number of workers changing into new jobs.

EIG referred to this phenomenon as the retreat of “economic dynamism” and it impacts multiple demographics. Even millennials seem averse to taking risks and “are on track be the least entrepreneurial generation in history,” according to EIG co-founder John Lettieri. In a 2016 poll from the United States Senate, millennials overwhelming responded that entrepreneurship is essential to the economy, and they consider someone working at a startup a success. Yet when asked about the best way to achieve success, a majority chose employment at one company and working their way up as the best option. This conservative preference is not a coincidence. Millennials carry more student debt, face rising housing costs, and have less confidence about the future than previous generations.

In policy debates about the future of work, experts emphasize opportunity, training, and skills. They compartmentalize and therefore rarely mention the financial stability people need to explore those opportunities.

No one doubts that the situation we are in is complex and thorny. There are many reasons why workers are reluctant to take chances, but it’s also likely that a good number of them would feel bolder if they could afford to and felt psychologically safe enough about their future to experiment. Few connect the dots on this problem.

In policy discussions, these conflicting trends — career instability and income volatility — are continually treated as entirely separate and unrelated. Conversations about the future of work emphasize opportunity, training, and skills; meanwhile, the financial stability that people need to explore those opportunities is rarely mentioned.

Today’s job market is littered with these very dangerous potholes, which can be summed up as follows:

  • Jobs are less certain and structured

  • Skills lose relevance more quickly

  • Pay is becoming highly unstable

  • Employers provide fewer benefits, training, and assistance with career advancement

  • The traditional safety net is ill-suited to the sources of disruption and instability that workers face.


A clear take-away from all these competing trends is that in tomorrow’s world, courting risk and embracing surprise may be the safest routes to take. For more people to will be willing to dance with this kind of uncertainty, a stronger foundation will have to be laid. Among other things, education needs to prioritize individual creativity, adaptability and entrepreneurial through simulation-based learning; re-investment in on-the-job training instead of just classroom or online learning; and update the safety net that gives people the stability, time, and resources to take risks.

As we wait for our political leaders to catch up with this reality, individuals can take the lead in upleveling themselves. In fact, inspiring outliers to the economy’s declining support structure already exist — and the jobs people are finding aren’t all in high-tech. Benefits of automation are real (and if past trends hold, automation will spawn as many new jobs as it eliminates), but there are lots of people seeking a life, and interesting work, beyond a computer screen. And plenty of consumers are looking for products made by entrepreneurs who think like master craftsmen.


Charles & Hudson / Flickr / Creative Commons

Charles & Hudson / Flickr / Creative Commons

In 2010, Etsy cofounder and Chief Marketing Officer Matt Stinchcomb had succeeded at something that seemed impossible: he and his partner took an idea about creating a durable business from joyful, ecological and more connected point of view over simply an economic one. What started as a marketplace to buy handmade things became a platform for building more connected human scale economies. Yet, by 2010, he found himself disillusioned with his job.

Matt moved to Berlin for a couple of years to run their international operations. His business partner left and the company appointed a new CEO, Chad. Chad asked Matt to take over marketing, again. “I hated it. I was less interested in email open rates and more interested in the real connections we could create with the platform which is hard to quantify from a marketing point of view.”

“The birth of my son made me question what I was doing with my life. We’re doing a lot of great things with Etsy, but I know that I need to be doing something of service to make this world better. I thought about running for office, and running a nonprofit…”

This birth of his first son made him question is career path and “in exploring some of the ways that fear was keeping me from the convergence of myself and my business, I put forward a proposal to say ‘if we really want to actually be this engine for impact, it needs to be someone’s job to steward it. Not someone’s job to do it.” Matt wanted to go deeper, to think about how do we use the business as the engine for impact and work across the company to give everyone not just the tools, but also the desire to maximize benefit for everyone in the system — he wanted to craft the business.

In 2015 went public, Matt saw an opportunity to pre-endow a different entity with stock. The CEO tasked Matt with the strategy of the new venture, leading to (later the Good Work Institute). Matt took space and risk to re-imagine how business is practiced and taught. He saw a need to “change what we are teaching, how we are teaching, who the teachers are, who the students are…. The things I was reading in all those marketing books wasn’t actually helpful. It was the things I was reading in Buddhist books, or permaculture books, or just what I learned by doing.”

Fear kept Matt from the embracing risk. “I always like to think about the idea that business as usual is destroying the world. Business as unusual could heal the world.” Having no formal business education he felt like an impostor when suggesting alternatives. Ultimately, he was willing to be misunderstood and challenged as he forge in a different direction. “The fear isn’t that you are not an intuitive person. The fear is that you actually listen to your intuition.”

“What I had been feeling on a personal level was disconnection — from nature, from community. That’s what initially led me to start exploring Buddhism. The more I explored that, the less willing I was to be in that disconnected state. I had to overcome those fears to connect these two things.”

The   Good Work Institute   .  conducts something other than business as usual. Image Credit: Franco Vogt

The Good Work Institute. conducts something other than business as usual. Image Credit: Franco Vogt

For the Matt, the keys to success were basic principles that are time-honored but often forgotten: deep connection with a particular problem (or medium), confidence with one’s own creativity, self-management through trial and error, and the constant ability to pivot and learn on the job. In similar ways, countless creative entrepreneurs have used services like Etsy and Ebay to create, and then expand, their businesses.


With robots doing everything from conducting funerals, evaluating rules in legal cases, assisting surgeries, and erotic dancing, it doesn’t take much to feel replacement is imminent for everyone. Yet technology has clear limitations — today, and for the foreseeable future.

The trend in automation is to do things more cheaply and smaller. As such, machines excel at processing data and performing routine tasks. However, they fall short on inherently human traits such as humor, empathy, social intelligence, communication, and leading and inspiring others. Machines also aren’t particularly good at a range of other qualities, often identified with craftsmanship, which are expected to be in increasing demand as well. These include deep expertise, creativity, artistry, adaptability, and the capacity for individual creativity that leads to innovation. Master craftsmen are in the business of raising standards.

What will it take for today’s workers to flip their fear and convert threat into an opportunity? Taking the first step requires a shift in mindset — to see technology as not just a machine that must be operated, but a challenge that must be mastered. And it goes a step further, the problem that machine is solving needs to hold a deep fascination for the worker, so that compulsion and drive to solve it under any conditions aids in persistence in our thorniest issues, making any technology that aids the worker a means to a much larger end. The problems people are attaching to, if they are the right problems for them to solve, become their medium of individual expression — much like master craftsmen contend with the idiosyncrasies of wood or stone.

Apprentices of Siemens USA, provide an example, explaining their goal is to move beyond being simply a “machine operator” who “pushes a button.” Instead, they want to learn to become true “machinists” — employees who can understand the bigger picture, program the machine, fix problems, apply judgement, and comprehend with precision how their programming will impact production. This kind of end-to-end perspective returns us back to craftsmanship as it was and moves away from the kind of line specialization that had workers competing with machines to do work more cheaply. End-to-end thinking requires openness, discernment, self-management, and the ability to both seek and find problems.

Learning to think like a craftsman as a manufacturing worker could be applied to warehouse workers at Amazon, Walmart, and others. And the story doesn’t end there. As technology advances and the nature of work changes, both the apprentice and the master craftsman alike will need to constantly evolve, take risks, re-learn and adapt. But far too many will not, unless we start making changes — now — to our systems of education, workplace training, and employee support.

Christine Haskell, Ph.D. is a leadership consultant and adjunct faculty at Washington State University. She helps busy leaders take responsibility for their learning and development. She writes on the topic of “Craftsmanship and The Future of Work.” sharing lessons from master craftsmen and women on personal and professional mastery, is due out late 2019. Sign up for her (semi-regular) newsletter here.

Thought Series: The importance sustained attention

Thought Series provides actionable ideas and anchors for reflection on your life or your work.


Photo by  Nik MacMillan

Photo by Nik MacMillan

My coaching practice focuses on insanely talented and highly creative people in the tech industry. These people like tough problems, process information at a speed that makes most people’s heads whirl, and genuinely enjoy the challenges they are facing. They want to make an impact.

At the same time, I don’t get called in because things are going well. I work with this crowd when their management scores are in a nosedive, or they didn’t do as well on their review as they would have liked, or they need to work with others more effectively — to name just a few issues. I get people in transition from one level to the next, or their scope doubled (or tripled) and they are looking for a sounding board to cope. And, I get people wondering what their next chapter will entail. All of these people are in a mental space where they don’t have immediate answers for what to do and are seeking help.

One of the defining characteristics of people who succeed and those who struggle is sustained attention to the things that matter most — to them personally. Learning is a continuous journey toward horizonal goals. The ability to take stock of where you are, what the yield is of your most recent experiences, and what’s next — those things have to be intentional acts. Intentional acts require reflection. We can and must do that for ourselves, for each other, and for our employees. We have to be willing to call BS with those assessments that don’t jive with reality.

As a manager, it was frustrating to work with people that expected their bosses, coaches, parents, mentors to chart out a career path or development plan for them rather than with them. As a coach, it is frustrating to see books and training programs that promise definitive answers — because deep down in our subconscious basements, we know there aren’t any.

Results are outcomes of a process, not the other way around.

It’s not about what plan I think they should embark on. My question to them is often: What do you have planned for you? Here, I’ll share about my own journey and how the idea of sustained attention through inquiry, opportunity and preparedness helped inform my choices.

Sustained Attention Through Inquiry

What is it you are curious about? How do you nurture and cultivate that curiosity? What do you like? What have you learned? What can you do with that? You seem unhappy with your pace, what might you try to get unstuck?

Then I ask, is there something I can help you with? From there, we build.

Sustained attention through inquiry. I urge you to do this for yourself, your peers, and your employees.

All of that inquiry is what informed me that I loved to write, I loved observing people and what made them tick fascinated me. All of that sounds easy to identify and move toward now. But it wasn’t for me to identify, acknowledge and invest in when I was in a career moving in another direction. We exist in a world where we are externally defined from such a young age — by our parents, friends, schools, church, jobs, and the media. And we learn to edit creativity and dreams out of our lives as children.

For example, I knew at age 6 I wanted to be a writer. I knew I enjoyed observing and making sense of what I saw. But like many kids of my generation, the reply I got was “That’s nice, but it won’t pay the bills.” or “That’s nice, but what will your main job be?” or “We just want you to have a nice life, do you want us to worry about you?” All of these sentiments were well-meaning. My parents valued education but had a lot of parental anxiety about my ability to support myself when I talked about writing as a career. It was a valid concern. Writing jobs barely paid. My entry into the workforce coincided with a deep recession. 

My parents encouraged directions that might be more lucrative and economically sustainable. They advised to “do what made me happy” but I didn’t see them model that themselves. Their anxiety coupled with the choices they made for their own lives impacted many of the early decisions I made in my life and career.

That said, I was encouraged to be an avid reader and observer. I learned that there are grand forces of action and reaction, culture, mindset, history, human courage, human fear, and weakness — and that those forces were all at work everywhere I went. My inner researcher and writer were awakened several times during my career but due to various circumstances remained dormant for a while.

Sustained Attention to Seizing Opportunities

My love of writing and curiosity about people didn’t find a direct outlet until more recently, but I did land in several startups and in an industry that had not yet been defined. The internet as we know it did not exist and it required thinkers from every perspective: computer science, english, sociology, psychology, etc. My timing could not have been more perfect to score a seat at the table and help contribute to what it might become.

Sometimes, a clear vision of what you don’t want can be very informative — and I knew I didn’t want a job in a beige cubicle. I wanted to be part of building something new and having a hand in defining it.

Coming of age in the 90s, I rejected the flashy brands and a winner-take-all mentality of the 1980s. The safest jobs, many believed, were in established companies. Working at a startup was a real career risk because you had to explain both the company and the industry. Consulting and entrepreneurship were fraught with stigma of someone who couldn’t make it in the big leagues. To the established, they looked like an irresponsible detour but startups were a kind of counter-cultural stance. Startups weren’t incubated and supported like they are today. There wasn’t a culture of understanding around what a startup was and how volatile it could be — here one day, gone the next. Working at several startups in the beginning of your career looked like you couldn’t commit or weren’t focused (on your own success, let alone the company’s).

Startups afforded me the opportunity to take on a lot of responsibility and make an impact very early in my career. I learned to understand people’s motivations and intentions in using online consumer products. I learned what compelled people to click on the first ad banners, the value of gaining customer permission in the first on- and off-line marketing promotions, what people’s threshold was in sharing their personal data in the first online calendar, what content people really watched online on the first audio/video players, and what it takes to create a data-driven decision making organization. All of these technology roles represented career breaks which I actively created for myself and seized. And, these roles leveraged my ability to think critically, required keen observation, and demanded that I make the complex simple across multiple stakeholders. Each role was an opportunity for me to continue developing my ability to observe and communicate.

Exposure to new skills and experiences is something we can create for ourselves and for our employees. Sustained attention to finding, offering, and seizing opportunities to stretch ourselves toward new territory — those things will lead to the unexpected. I continued honing my observation skills.I don’t recall having many close friends in these early startups. These companies were not very diverse in gender or age. There was usually a female secretary to the CEO and maybe (but not usually) a VP of sales or marketing. I was usually the youngest hire and one of the few women. The same was true of my faculty and advisers from college. There were countless times I was asked, “So, are you thinking of making a career of this?”, “What do these roles amount to for you?”, “Don’t bother with grad school if you’re thinking of getting married and having kids, it’s not worth it.” Their confusion of over my ambition made it so palpable that I was being sized up for worthiness of being mentored and invested in.I know this kind of thing probably happens to men as well, but at that point in life, my backpack was feeling pretty heavy. It was at this stage I learned the importance of sustained attention to preparedness.

Sustained Attention to Preparedness

When I couldn’t find a lifeline in a boss or mentor, I created them by becoming more prepared. I shut down those confused or benignly negative comments by being the baddest bitch in whatever it was I was trying to do. Preparedness, confidence and some measure of swagger helped me win key moments and get important breaks.

There is nothing that the establishment structure loves more than to make you doubt yourself. Discrimination, exclusion, and discouragement are horrible. We don’t have enough time to talk about all the #MeToo stories I’ve been through, or heard from my colleagues and clients, and the scarring that occurs there. The gas-lighting that goes on (particularly for women in business) is corrosive and toxic because it can sap your will to try and undermines your belief in yourself. It is subtle, and it is viciously effective.

I got through my crisis of confidence in feeling unsupported in my pursuit of a career in technology through sustained attention to gaining more competence and by revisiting sustained attention to seizing opportunity and self-inquiry. I pressed people in my network for new opportunities. I sought to diversify my experience. When re-orgs threatened to specialize me in a discipline I didn’t want depth in, I raised my hand for another area of the company or found other problems to solve. Before there was so much free information available, I looked up syllabi from schools I wanted to attend and read their booklists. I asked people in grad school if I could attend classes with them to hear their lectures. I read every book I could get my hands on subjects that interested me. I went to conferences. I joined boards to increase my ability to work with different kinds of people. I took on projects that other people didn’t initially want and turned them into winning initiatives that reduced costs, increased efficiency, and broadened my scope. There are some that think emphasizing competency is a trap — that when we’re compelled to be many times better than the pack in order just to be viewed as an equal that this isn’t a good thing. All I can share about that is that it is what worked for me, in the circumstances I was in.

Higher competency gave me confidence. It increased my reputation and respect in a way that being average could not. Young, female, often alone in a group — I had a lot of stones in my backpack. Sustained attention to inquiry eventually led me to embark on graduate school where I could indulge my interest in studying human behavior and deepen my skills in writing and research. Sustained attention to opportunity led me to starting my own business. Sustained attention to competency gave me laser focus on what skills I needed to change lanes in my career.

Need to learn more about human behavior, and systems, AND want the rigor beyond working off a booklist? Go to graduate school. Learn to do your own research. Need to learn more about small business? Start showing up in the communities and forums you care about and meet people doing it already. Want to learn what’s next? Choose your tools and guides wisely. 

Yes, there were obstacles, slights, and times when the unfairness felt like it was too much. Yes, colleagues were unhelpful and prone to sabotaging and hoarding information (generally around performance calibration). Even networking acquaintances could thwart efforts by using rather than reciprocating. This dynamic made the few women that were there in my field feel like they were in competition with one another. That part, it was trying.

Bosses, especially female leaders, should walk the floors of their teams and observe how people interact. Set up feedback mechanisms for people to let you know what is happening on the team. Don’t do it because it’s the morally correct thing to do. Do it because it’s about productivity.

While the environment might not be necessarily toxic it might be lower performing. I encourage people to seek mentorship.

Shame people into helping you if you have to! Reach out for what you need! But before you do, know yourself first. Invest the time in learning how to direct your own interests before soliciting the help of others.

Christine Haskell, Ph.D. is a pragmatic researcher, coach, and consultant focused on helping busy leaders take responsibility for their learning and development. Her book Craft Your Life, sharing lessons from master craftsmen and women on personal and professional mastery, is due out late 2019. Sign up for her (semi-regular) newsletter here.

Thought Series: The Other Side of Fear


Thought Series provides actionable ideas and anchors for reflection on your life or your work.

Technology is meant to complement us, not dominate us. If automation is where people developing technology can take us and what they want to accomplish, it strikes me that we as human beings need to lean in to our humanity and what psychologist Carl Rogers referred to it as our ‘human-beingness’ even more. In order to remain as relevant as possible, we need to develop the skills that robots cannot simulate, poll dancing aside.

Critical thinking, ethics, and policy will be very important to our future. We need to regain some of the knowledge we have lost in our pursuit to become one with The Machine of the Industrial Revolution. The basis of how we understand (ourselves and others and the universe), therefore, lies in the anatomy of the brain and its capacity to cope with complex human reactions such as intelligence, thinking, and learning.

Master wood turner Eric Hollenbeck put it this way, “It’s like the Train of Society, going down the track, is scooping up more and more information— ‘scooping more, ‘scooping more, ‘scooping more—at an impressive speed. For some reason, it can only hold so much. This forces the person in the caboose to start throwing information off, as fast as he can, making room for the information coming on in the front. The problem is, we are throwing off the information it took us twenty-five thousand years to glean.”

Rather than being completely replaced, jobs are going to be reinvented. Our jobs are merely bundles of different tasks. Some (or many) of those tasks will be automated. But like evolving from the typewriter to the computer, or going to the library to now using a search engine, technology will basically redefine the kinds of things that we do and how we do them. (Librarians, by the way, are still better than a search engine because they are better at forming good questions.)

At some point in the future, we will learn that even something as human as creativity is actually fairly mechanical. There will be, I believe, an algorithm for creativity. But robots are going to be creative in a different way than humans are. For instance, a robot’s attempt at comedy or dance would be different than a human’s. They will never intrinsically understand what it means to “be human” in the way that we do. Even with such deep intelligence at their disposal, they will never do things exactly like we do them, and there is tremendous value in this difference of perspective, of skill, and of execution.

The convergence between man and machine has become adopted by people of every walk of life, from the poorest farmer to the richest billionaire. The relationship we have with machines has spread widely, been adopted quickly, and evolved to an unprecedented level of intimacy. No longer for the super curious dancing on the fringe of early adoption, the web/internet/computer is now part of mainstream society.

Is that panic, or excitement you are feeling?


Since the robots are here, and here to stay, we shouldn’t be fighting them. If we do, we’ll lose (if our national math/science scores are any indication). We should be figuring out how to work with them.

In 1997, the first big challenge to human exceptionalism was the IBM Deep Blue, who beat the reigning chess master at the time, Gary Kasparov. And when Kasparov lost, some thought this was the end of chess. Who’s going to play competitively because computers are always going to win? But that didn’t happen.

Playing against computers actually increased the extent to which chess became popular. And, on average, the best players became better playing against the artificial minds. Technology raised their game. Even Kasparov, who lost, speculated on the unfairness of being matched to a database that had access to every single chess move ever. So he invented a new, freestyle chess league, where you can play any way you want. You can play as an AI or you can play as a human or you can play as a team of AI and humans.

In the past couple of years the best chess player on the planet is not an AI. And it’s not a human. It’s the team that Kasparov refers to centaurs; it’s the team of humans and AI. They are complementary. AIs and humans think differently. This is reflected in other disciplines. The world’s best medical diagnostician is not Watson, or a human doctor. It’s the team of Watson plus a doctor.

This idea of teaming, or collaborating with something that can be creative, make decisions, and develop consciousness (different than ours) requires us to learn to develop more self-awareness, increase our autonomy, and make better decisions. We are running on a different substrate, and it’s not a zero-sum game.

There is inherent beauty in this symmetry between machines and humans. That, if humans get to gain more awareness of themselves and gain mastery in something unique to them, we can work with machines to tackle something even greater.

At its essence, artificial intelligence is math and data. Math and data have rules. What is difficult about the problems that need to be solved today is that deep neural networks of the brain have a multidimensional space where there is no “sense” to be made. Or, at least we are still unable to make sense of the rules at play. At a certain point, we just don’t know what it all means (yet).

If you relate to the metaphor of the brain in terms of a computer and the way that it receives, processes and stores information, you can appreciate that incoming information is acted upon by a series of processing systems. Each of these systems accepts, rejects or transforms the information in some way, resulting in some form of response.

Where there is a difference between the computer and the brain is in the type of processing of which each is capable. Computers are only capable of processing one bit of information at a time before moving on to the next bit, whereas the brain often engages in a multitude of bits of information simultaneously. There is also an issue about predictability, with the computer always reacting to the same input in exactly the same manner, whereas the brain may be subjected to emotional or environmental pressures that cause differences in reaction.

In short, we just don’t know the rules of the human brain. Therein lies the great fear of and opportunity for humankind: learning, guiding, or controlling these rules.

Thought Series: 5 Practices for driving trust


Thought Series provides actionable ideas and anchors for reflection on your life or your work.


Marketing is becoming a more resource-rich function of business. Marketing is the function that creates and sustains long-lasting relationships with the most important assets of any business—the employees, customers, suppliers, and partners. Led by the guiding principles of the organization, marketing matters in every relationship. To some degree, everyone must be a marketer.

Data, digital, social, mobile, analytics, real-time agility—are all common vocabulary and the subject of numerous business articles and conversation. Thus marketers need to shift their focus from pushing messages at people to engaging them in an ongoing conversation and relationship. The speeddirection, and magnitude of the changes in marketing have been widely discussed. But no one has the answer locked up on where connection, collaboration, sharing, gifting are headed—as a means for building trust.

Leaders of values-based organizations offer a path forward since connection and quality of their relationships is how they operate.


You establish and build a community using both content and social media marketing. It can be difficult. You’re interacting with your audience constantly: fostering new relationships, nurturing existing ones, and listening/responding to feedback. You’re building trust and rapport and your social reach is growing.

These things are great for building awareness. You’re putting yourself out there and joining in the conversation. You may not think people are interested in your business and what you have to say, but guess what, they are.

All of that is important. But there is one thing to remember: Our emotions are the primary driver of our on- and offline actions.

Put It Into Practice

One way to measure healthy relationships with other people, is to think about:

  • Do you look forward to seeing that person?

  • Do you care about them?

  • Do they share your values?

  • Do you speak well of them to others?

…because these questions apply to companies as well. See more about the science of emotions in marketing.


Collaboration is one of those words, like innovation or execution, that sometimes loses its meaning in a management context because it is overused. We know we need to work together better. We know we can all get along, and that more heads on an issue make for better solutions. Yet it’s also one of those behaviors that many companies hope will just happen. They think, “let’s put a bunch of good, motivated people together and the collaboration will take place, right?” It’s not that easy — leaders must create conditions in which collaboration is inevitable. And everyone in that environment needs to make a conscious choice to learn from others.

Put It Into Practice

  • What should we make?

  • Who should we make it for?

  • How do we make it in such a way that the story of our product is true?


We all want to feel that our lives have meaning. We gravitate towards brands that help us find that meaning. Apple’s “Think different” or Nike’s “Just do it” represent challenges we can bring into our personal lives. It could be an allusion to our common humanity like Skype’s family portrait series, which illustrated the growth of a long-distance friendship between two girls, each missing an arm. Or it could be a global call to action like Wal-Mart’s sustainable supply chain initiative. Each of these companies built an engaged audience by finding a big, ambitious theme and building a long-running campaign around it. Each also experienced sustained growth.

Put It Into Practice

  • How can you improve people’s lives?

  • How can you develop others?

  • How can you invest in your community?


As Bill Gates said, “We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten.”

I think the same is true with Agile. Agile was originally promoted as a “movement” over a decade ago.  Like many new ideas, Agile adoption was slow to start and quick to dominate. From the looks of the marketplace, it looks like Agile has finally hit its stride.

As recently as five years ago, most marketing departments were set up only to conduct campaigns and launches. That is changing, especially at larger companies with large numbers of customers. It is not the old mode of planning a campaign, executing it, analyzing the results, learning from them and applying those lessons to next year’s campaign. Marketers are increasingly running a real-time dialogue, constantly listening and instantly connecting in relevant ways. Consumers have an expectation of immediacy.

A 24/7 mentality requires a different way of working. The industrial model assembly line is gone. Now, open space provides a kind of trading room floor, responds to the ebbs and flows of the market as they occur. Although disciplines experience the larger product launches, it is the day-in and day-out efforts of relationship building with employees, customers, suppliers, and partners who in return reward you with a supportive ecosystem of brand loyalty and a steady stream of purchases.

Put It Into Practice

  • Does the experiment have a clear purpose?

  • Have stakeholders made a commitment to abide by the results?

  • Is the experiment doable?

  • How can we ensure reliable results?

  • Have we gotten the most value out of the experiment?

Although those questions seem obvious, many companies begin conducting tests without fully addressing them.


Unilever Senior Vice-president of Marketing Marc Mathieu likes to say that marketing “used to be about creating a myth and selling it and is now about finding a truth and sharing it.” It is difficult to sustain myths these days; with a few clicks of the mouse, anyone can discover almost anything and instantly circulate it to an audience of millions. Companies confident enough to share the truth are choosing to participate in a web-enabled show and tell— and consumers, employees, suppliers, and partners appreciate it.

Transparency is appealing because you can’t really connect with someone unless there’s some level of transparency. We seek transparency from organizations because we do business in a culture that is characterized by social transparency. Yet, we do business in a culture that has experienced the erosion of privacy.

Put It Into Practice

  • What do you see as the relationship between transparency and generosity?

  • Can you point to examples where transparency made a difference?

  • What steps do you feel you can take to increase transparency? (about what you do, what your group does, what your organization does)

Thought Series: 3 Lessons Business Leaders Can Learn From Master Craftsmen & Women

Thought Series provides actionable ideas and anchors for reflection on your life or your work.


Trade and craftsmanship are inextricably linked. We develop skills and learn to perform to a standard. We aim to be skilled in our respective trades. That said, most people will agree there is something sacred about true craftsmanship. Why is craftsmanship so rare? What can we do to cultivate craftsmanship?

There is, I believe, a craftsman in all of us. Everyone has untapped creative potential. Whether we’re talking about a stone carver or a paradigm shifting business leader it’s human nature to conclude that those who demonstrate unusual gifts owe their success to an almost magical quality that you’re either born with or you’re not: talent.

How we spend our time and what problems we choose to labor over says a lot about how we approach the idea of work. Moving an idea in any medium—working with raw materials or through people—is hard, but it is a battle that can be won through disciplined effort, focused attention, and obsession over a particular problem you feel drawn to solve. In fact, real-world problem-solving is most strongly linked to higher self-reported work quality. When your trade is in service of your craft, you elevate your work.

While the skills you bring matter, few of us ever reach the limits of our natural abilities. Instead what holds us back is a lack of commitment or a lack of focus. “Inspiration,” Picasso said, “needs to find you working.” Such advice often overwhelms us and makes us yearn for the recipe, standards, templates or blueprints to success. Showing up counts for a lot, because it deepens your ability. Effort matters.

But there is another component necessary to achieving true craftsmanship—preoccupation with your subject. Only when we are internally driven does effort combine with skill to manifest as achievement. In other words, it takes effort to get good at something. It takes effort to apply that skill, to create. But it takes obsession to hang in there for the long haul.

If you look at any master craftsman or admired business leader’s life story, for instance, they don’t begin by displaying savant- like brilliance at an early age. Clothing designer Eileen Fisher did not start out with the stores she has today. She started with a single rack of samples at a New York design show, “and it was a disaster.” In fact many craftsmen struggled. Several leaders experienced painful failures. What distinguishes their approach to their craft is that they regard the struggle to learn as part of the privilege of their craft. They work hard to make a difference and choose work that is worthwhile to them.

Rather than chasing a different dream each week or month or year, you need – at least eventually – to settle on a higher calling and never let go. Drive and determination, combined with single-minded direction, is what elevates your work.

Many people think that once you find your “thing” maintaining interest is easy—that it no longer feels like work. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book Flow discusses the nature of work as complete absorption in what one does. While all masters and mentors referred to being in a “zen-state” or “meditative state” this mindset needs to be actively cultivated.

Interest and motivation are not fixed. They need to be nurtured and developed, much like learning a new language. Here are three steps from my latest research on master craftsmen and business leaders that you can take to develop yourself and level up your work – and begin to live and work with craftsmanship.



When you start a class or a job for the first time, you step in to a world where you don’t yet know the rules. This new environment has a particular ecosystem, with values, beliefs, procedures, and social dynamics that you have yet to learn. You do not yet know how to navigate the power structure, what passes for good work, or conventions for communicating with others. Your goal as you enter is to examine.

A common mistake is to “hit the ground running” in a way where you feel you have to prove yourself. If you are constantly seeking external validation and worrying about impressing others, you miss two things: nuances in the environment, and the ability to evaluate your own work. Early compliments can quickly become fickle, relying on them will lead you astray. Take time to understand the reality of where you are, how things work, and where you fit in best. If you want to impress others, it should be because of how serious you are about learning, not because you are trying to get promoted before you are ready.

Master craftsmen and admired business leaders have a preoccupation with a subject or concern. I refer to this as their inner compass (because it guides their awareness) and nothing will stop them in pursuit of this higher goal. How can you find yours if you don’t have one already?

There are two kinds of examining you are looking to do: internal and external. Mine your life. With what have you been and are you continually fascinated?

Second, observe and examine the system around you. Learn the rules that govern the system, understand “the way things are done.” Whether a craftsman or leader, these lessons are both spoken and unspoken, and a reflection of core values and beliefs. In business, you uncover these values by observing how successful people are recognized on the way up and how less fortunate people are treated while they struggle on the way down.

After taking in the rules of the system, it’s important to learn where the power lies. How does communication flow through the system? Who claims power and who actually has it? Who is moving up and who it moving down?

Last, what sparks you most about the environment you are in? Where do you find the most meaning in what you do?

By exploring these concepts, you can start to understand how things function, connect more effectively to your inner compass, and find your place in ecosystem. The importance of this step is to train you to examine every system you find yourself in so you can avoid costly mistakes. It is always best to look before you leap. And, you can’t effectively navigate the system unless you know it.



After you’ve been in your role for a while, you come up on the next principle of learning—choosing tools and acquiring skills. For some jobs, like operating a machine that always performs the same action, the skills you need to learn are obvious. Other jobs require more of a mix between physical and mental skills, like stone cutting or observing and collecting nature specimens to inspire a felting project. Still other jobs are vaguer, like working with and through people or examining research. Whatever the need, your goal is to make your learning simple, to understand what matters for you to become proficient, and what needs ongoing practice.

First, it is important to start with a single skill you can master. This creates your learning foundation. This will increase your focus and deepen your concentration.

Second, it is important to manage your frustration with setbacks. Challenges in learning are predictable. Anticipating early struggles, frustrations, resistance, and the fickleness of new commitment can help you better prepare. These things cannot be avoided when learning something new, no matter how motivated we are to attain mastery. The only way is through.

Marc Sokol, Editor of Human and People Strategy Magazine, commented on the nature of perseverance:

People say the key to being an entrepreneur is perseverance. Well, guess what? 

Successful entrepreneurs and unsuccessful entrepreneurs are often just as persevering. But, successful entrepreneurs figure out when adapt, and unsuccessful entrepreneurs don’t.

There’s a cognitive difference and a readiness-to-pull-the-cord difference, as opposed to optimism and perseverance.

This practice of skill is best understood by considering the greatest learning-by-doing model ever created: the apprenticeship. Given how little information was available in the Middle Ages, apprentices learned through observation, imitation, and repetition. Certainly their hands-on learning amounted to much, much more than the 10,000 hours needed to learn a skill. It’s not just engaging in a domain for thousands of hours. You have to change how able you are to do something. Anders Ericcson refers to this as deliberate practice. The cathedrals, castles, and walls are powerful examples of craftsmanship and engineering. Accomplished without the benefit of blueprints or books to describe them, and the result of engaging in the smallest of tasks, they represent the accumulation of skills and knowledge of several generations.

Learning through observation, practice, and repetition has a long history. We learned to hunt, forage, make tools long before we could speak. Even if the task is purely mental in nature, like learning a foreign language or computer programming, our like brains like the routine of learning by doing. In other words, reading-theories-doesn’t-make-perfect, practice makes perfect.



Operate on the boundary of what you can, and cannot do. The shortest and most critical part of the learning process is taking all of the skills you’ve acquired and actually putting them to the test—literally. A map can only get you so far. Sooner or later, you are going to need to evaluate your environment, rely on your gut, and use your judgment pm what direction to take.  Experimentation could mean that you step up and take more responsibility which invites more criticism of your work. Ari experimented each time he applied his current skills toward opening a new business. Master ceramicist Louise Pentz experimented her way through a sculpture by creating and destroying her way through it. She explains her process:

You have to make a lot of mistakes. You’re hoping for the mistakes, because that is usually where things are most exciting. Too much control and the outcome loses some of its essence. It ends up just like everyone else’s outcomes. Average. Within the norm. Mainstream.

Often when I create a piece I’ll build it and it will be good, but not very exciting. It’s good, technically, but I wonder ‘how I can give life to this piece?’

I start to break it apart. I might hit or punch the clay with a stick or I’ll rip a piece off of the side. All of those gestures make the piece stronger and better in my eyes.

Through working an idea, editing, and experimentation, you start to gauge your own practice, develop your own standards. You learn to take a stand in the presence of others’ judgments. In pursuit of ongoing development, you seek constructive feedback.


Inner awareness and observation help guide us so that we do not need to be told what to do. Gaining new skills through deliberate practice helps us develop the ability to accept feedback and introduces us to standards. Seeking new experiences, we decide if it would be easier and safer to operate within a template, to do what we’re told, and to stay within our comfort zone—or if we feel the compulsion to forge ahead.

Like attempting the high dive for the first time, freedom is deeply attractive as well as terrifying. We are confronted with the question: Who would we be if we were truly free? There are surprising ways to access moments of freedom regardless of circumstance and it often results by initiating action before you think you are ready—just like taking the leap off of that first high dive.

You’ve completed your apprenticeship in a particular skill when there isn’t anything left to know in this environment. Your experiments no longer make you uneasy. Things become more or less predictable. Where to go next? Go deeper, find a niche, or both. By finding your true calling, honing your craft through dedicated deliberate practice, and responding to setbacks with an optimistic, problem-solving approach, you will follow in the footsteps of the many outstanding Mentors and Masters I have studied, all of whom are characterized by that mix of awareness, skill development, and practice.

To believe that only a lucky few are born with true talent, while the rest of us are not, is demoralizing. You might understandably wonder whether the focus on craftsmanship simply shifts this concern to a different trait: that perhaps a rare few are blessed with innate talent for superior work while us lesser mortals are destined to weaker will and an absence of meaningful work. In fact, studies suggest that mastery and achievement are not inherited traits, but abilities requiring cultivation. The common factor in people that live and work with craft is how they deliberately practice and change themselves and engage in very goal-directed practice activities. This leaves plenty of room for the rest of us to be influenced by other factors such as life experiences and deliberate cultivation.