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.

Do not go gentle into that good night

Sharing a poem to inspire creativity and connection with the work you are engaged in. Engagement with the work we choose to labor over is our own individual responsibility.

It is up to each of us to find the singular world problem we want to dedicate our lives to--and it is a privilege.

“Poetry can break open locked chambers of possibility, restore numbed zones to feeling, recharge desire,” Adrienne Rich wrote in contemplating what poetry does. “Insofar as poetry has a social function it is to awaken sleepers by other means than shock,” Denise Levertov asserted in her piercing statement on poetics. Few poems furnish such a wakeful breaking open of possibility more powerfully than “Do not go gentle into that good night” — a rapturous ode to the unassailable tenacity of the human spirit by the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas (October 27, 1914–November 9, 1953). --via BrainPickings

The Pulitzer-winning Irish poet and New Yorker poetry editor Paul Muldoon writes in the 2010 edition of The Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas:

Dylan Thomas is that rare thing, a poet who has it in him to allow us, particularly those of us who are coming to poetry for the first time, to believe that poetry might not only be vital in itself but also of some value to us in our day-to-day lives. It’s no accident, surely, that Dylan Thomas’s “Do not go gentle into that good night” is a poem which is read at two out of every three funerals. We respond to the sense in that poem, as in so many others, that the verse engine is so turbocharged and the fuel of such high octane that there’s a distinct likelihood of the equivalent of vertical liftoff. Dylan Thomas’s poems allow us to believe that we may be transported, and that belief is itself transporting.

In this rare recording, Thomas himself brings his masterpiece to life:


Do not go gentle into that good night

Dylan Thomas, 1914 - 1953

Do not go gentle into that good night,

Old age should burn and rave at close of day;

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,

Because their words had forked no lightning they

Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright

Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,

And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,

Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight

Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,

Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.

Do not go gentle into that good night.

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Book Shelf: A Beautiful Constraint


In this richly anecdotal, conversational and groundbreaking approach to problem solving, iconoclastic marketing consultant Adam Morgan and co-author Mark Barden help you learn to identify your habitual thought and emotional patterns so you can sidestep them when you face obstacles. They show how a tiny shift in perspective can bring enormous changes. The authors offer remarkably perceptive advice, with insight into and compassion toward the almost infinite roadblocks people put in their own way when trying to overcome a limitation. Unlike most authors who combine the psychological and the practical, Morgan and Barden never exclude themselves from those who need help. They discuss overcoming their own patterns of pessimistic self-regard. The authors’ practical guidance applies to career and personal situations.

Key Points

  • Embrace your “constraints” as inspirations
  • Recognize and transcend your habitual thought and emotional patterns
  • Learn what role emotion plays in motivation
  • Balance obstacles and rewards to achieve your goals


  • “A constraint is a limitation that materially affects” your ability to act.
  • Faced with constraints, people become “victims, neutralizers or transformers.”
  • To approach a constraint in a new, imaginative way, reframe the question it contains.
  • To cope with limits, know your “dominant path” and think outside it.
  • Place unreasonable demands on yourself, your suppliers and your customers.
  • Learn the value of your available resources to yourself and others so you can make mutually beneficial exchanges.
  • Being happy activates mental flexibility and openness to new associations.
  • Efficiency, not resources, drives results.
  • IKEA founder Ingvar Kamprad’s motivating constraint is that making expensive products is easy, but making something inexpensive that endures is difficult.
  • Abundant business activity can limit the time you have available for the leisure activities that stimulate strategy and creativity.


“Beauty in Constraint”

“A constraint is a limitation that materially affects” your ability to act. Most people chafe at any boundary, even those they impose on themselves. Confinement feels “restrictive and adversely limiting.” But approached with a proper attitude, a limit can broaden your thinking and potential. For example, both worthy parenting and lean business improvement owe much to constraints. You may face time, technique or budget constraints. You may have to respond to a boundary you can’t control. Or, you may impose a limit on yourself to spur new ideas. Consider how shoe retailer Zappos deals with a primary limitation: its online customers can’t try shoes on to see if they fit. The firm’s success comes from its innovative solution: Zappos does not charge for shipping and accepts returns with no questions. Buyers can test shoes and send them back easily.

“Constraints…are liberators of new possibilities, and we need to have a completely new relationship with them.”

However, not every constraint has a beneficial resolution. Today’s human endeavors take place at the intersection of “scarcity and abundance.” Technology allows you to learn anything or to connect to anyone in the world, any time of the day or night. That’s abundance. Yet every business today, whatever its size, must cope with a scarcity of time, resources or opportunities. Faced with balancing ever-new challenges of different types, you – and everyone else in business – must put conscious constraints on your ambition.

“We sit at a nexus between an abundance of possibilities on one hand and the reality of scarcities on the other.”

The Stages of Dealing with a Constraint

When a constraint appears in your path, do you allow it to stop you? To “make the constraint beautiful,” respond, instead, by becoming more ambitious and finding ways to move forward despite limitations. The “tension” between the forcefulness of your drive and the force of the constraint fuels creative solutions. People respond to restrictions in three sequential “stages”:

“Personal motivation is crucial to the transformation process, and that can be sourced from the larger narrative of the organization, as well as our own makeup.”

  1. A “victim” reduces his or her ambitions and pulls back when constraints appear.
  2. A “neutralizer” maintains ambition and goes around the constraints.
  3. A “transformer” views a “constraint as an opportunity” and grows more ambitious.

Resource owners are “people or companies with whom we currently have little, if any, relationship, but who have an abundance of a particular kind of resource that we need.”

Learn to recognize which stage defines your current response to a barrier, and try to move forward by understanding why you are at that stage and what you can do to move past it. Be on the alert not to slip into a victim mind-set at the first appearance of a constraint. Asking why this is happening to you is a reflexive response, so ask, but then keep going. Deliberately identifying and leaving behind victimhood to become a transformer demands strength of mind, “method and motivation.” Accept that you can deal with the problem. Compare it to ways you’ve surmounted similar roadblocks in the past. Method means figuring out how to “frame the challenge” and deal with the constraint. Motivation means finding the willpower to face the constraint, a step that might demand breaking out of old patterns.

“The composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein remarked that ‘to achieve great things, two things are needed: a plan, and not quite enough time.’”

“Break Path Dependence”

If you rely on established practices, you may suffer path dependence. Your “dominant path” is the proven problem-solving approach you’d generally follow to deal with obstacles. In the past, this course of action has produced positive results for you. Following the dominant path is a sound strategy for larger organizations, which must replicate their successes “at scale and speed.” Larger firms lack the time or energy to reinvent the wheel for each new situation.

“Scarcity and abundance are more accurately seen as an infinite loop, one side constantly feeding and stimulating the other.”

To cope with new constraints, you need to know your dominant path and think outside it. To change your habits, you first must recognize them. The limits most likely to paralyze you spring from your existing assumptions about yourself and from relying too much on your dominant path. Companies, teams and individuals all suffer from reflexive responses. Use self-examination to identify your automatic reactions and patterns. Then you can break free and think more flexibly.

“This desire to look for entirely new ways to arrive at answers is part of a cultural sense that ‘it is more fun when things are really hard to do’.”

“Ask Propelling Questions”

In 2006, when automaker Audi sought to win the legendary, 24-hour Le Mans road race, its engineers didn’t ask how to make their car faster than anyone else’s. They asked how they could win if their car wasn’t the fastest. Their radical solution was to design and build a high-performance diesel engine. The revolutionary Audi R10 TDI was no faster than its competition, but its diesel engine provided a significant boost in fuel economy and required fewer pit stops than its rivals. That margin led to victory.

“If we let them, the decisions we made yesterday will determine what is possible tomorrow.”

The way you frame questions makes the difference between success and failure. Ask questions that parallel your dominant path, but that still generate new solutions. IKEA did this when it offered a striking, sturdy table and kept the price down by having customers assemble it. Use the “Four Sources of Unreasonableness” to spur propelling questions:

“A world of too much data, too many choices, too many possibilities and too little time is forcing us to decide what we value.”

  1. “The unreasonable regulator” – You may feel that regulators impose unreasonable limits on commerce, such as limiting the use of fossil fuels. But the regulations drive efficiency and spur alternatives, such as the development of electric cars.
  2. The unreasonable consumer” – People reject “trade-offs” when they are buying. They want what they want when they want it. Each commercial category must find ways to meet its consumers’ wishes. City Car Share, for example, rents automobiles by the hour.
  3. “The unreasonable customer” – Retailers are often very demanding with their suppliers. Walmart demands more innovative goods, lower prices, simpler transactions and higher standards from every supplier. To keep Walmart’s business, suppliers comply.
  4. The unreasonable challenger” – In 2014, Airbnb rented out more rooms than Hilton Hotels. Why did Hilton miss this threat? If “legacy” organizations mistake their positions as unassailable, the market will teach them when they’re wrong.

“We need a particular kind of persistence – a creative tenacity, full of willing and adaptive experimentation.”

“Can-If Sequences”

Don’t talk about whether a goal is possible, talk about how it “could be possible.” Don’t say you can’t do something. Say why you can do it, no matter how far-fetched the reason. This attitude inserts the “oxygen of optimism” into your outlook. It makes every person in the conversation search for answers, not obstacles. It helps people regard themselves as seeking resolutions, not problems. Can-if sequences follow specific, structured “types,” like these:

“We are not suggesting that all constraints have the potential to be beneficial.”

  • “We can if we think of it as…”
  • “We can if we use other people to…”
  • “We can if we access the knowledge of…”
  • “We can if we resource it by…”

“Inventiveness, and the small and big breakthroughs it generates, will be at least as important as innovation to the future of what we do and how we progress.”

“Creating Abundance”

Improvisational comedy depends on all of the performers maintaining an open mind and being willing to build on what the other players offer to move their shared scenes forward. Mutual acceptance of each other’s ideas builds abundance into the process. Recognizing the “tradable value” in what you give others and in what they give you is the essence of resourcefulness.

“Those who refused to scale back ambition in the face of constraint…seemed to be the ones most likely…to make the constraint beautiful.”

You block your resourcefulness when you find benefit only in matters that are under your “immediate control,” when you don’t purposefully draw on fresh resources, when you let limits define your situation and when you don’t recognize the valuable exchanges you can offer. To gain access to the value in another person’s resources, think creatively about the value of your own. Sidestep your dominant path and regard your contributions through the prism of the other person’s needs. Those who can help you may include your stakeholders, outside partners, competitors, and those who “have a lot of” what you need and who want what you’ve got to swap. Approach them with a “mutually beneficial hustle” that serves your mutual needs.

“Activating Emotions”

Joy and delight “fuel increased cognitive flexibility” by unleashing dopamine and noradrenaline, which speed the movement of cerebral data and form links among diffuse bits of knowledge. Being happy makes you feel safer and less oppressed, which frees your thinking. Rage and dread make you tighten up and work harder and longer. Try to balance contentment with the right amount of anxiety to nourish your flexibility and increase your desire to attain your goals. Use the “science of mental contrasting” to balance a situation’s positives and negatives. Compare “indulging,” which means fantasizing about what your life will be like when you reach your goal, and “dwelling,” which means visualizing all that can go wrong. The most productive motivational state toggles between those two poles to balance obstacles and rewards. This process prepares you to create a strategy to fulfill your “implementation intention.”

Making Something Out of Nothing

When the McLaren Formula One racing team lost its major sponsors due to the EU ban on promoting tobacco, it faced a huge budget shortfall. Team leader Ron Dennis recognized the opportunity to do more with less. He had his team look at every detail of its operation to find ways to become faster, leaner, more efficient and more aware of costs. McLaren employees – from garage floor-sweepers to superstar drivers – saw that money alone isn’t what makes a team great. Efficiency and dedication drive results. Dennis also realized that his team could no longer be passive about sponsorship. Instead of just painting the racecar to promote their sponsors, McLaren’s people wore sponsors’ “logos, hats and watches” for maximum visibility. With this enthusiasm, McLaren scored a major sponsorship deal with the giant phone company Vodafone.In the “fertile zero,” you have fewer resources than you want or need, but the seeds of creativity can grow. This “Zero Constraint” can be inspirational. If you must ration your advertising, every statement must be powerful. If you can’t afford to boost yourself, “get others to talk about you for you.” If your main media outlet is too costly, maximize what you can get from a cheaper channel. Push your teams to find innovative solutions and create new partnerships; spur conversation about your product; and draw on “other people’s money, time and resources” to propel mutual goals. For instance, the citizenM “budget hotel with luxury aspirations” formed a partnership with Vitra, a Swiss furniture firm, to turn its hotel lobbies into furnishings showrooms at no cost.

“Constraint-Driven Cultures”

Large organizations can make constraints work for them as effectively as individuals and small companies can. IKEA founder Ingvar Kamprad preaches that building expensive products is simple, but building inexpensive products that endure is a difficult and worthy mission. He revels in asking “impossible questions.” For example, when he saw rows of featherless chickens hanging in a Beijing market, he wondered what use he could make of the feathers. He turned “a food waste product into the stuffing for more affordable duvets.”Nike has always been a leader in sports shoes. But in the mid-1990s bad publicity about working conditions in its Asian factories – and its CEO’s initial defensive response – damaged its brand. When Nike discovered a constraint – that it could not monitor every factory to protect workers from toxic glue – it reinvented the glue. After Nike succeeded with this solution, the process of dealing with other constraints challenged and improved its business operations. For example, it reshaped its manufacturing process to cut the amount of waste materials left on the factory floor.

“Scarcity and Abundance”

Everyone must ask, “Is this the Age of Scarcity or the Age of Abundance?” Commonly seen as opposing forces, scarcity and abundance are, in fact, an “infinite loop,” fueling each other in an unending yin-yang spin. Scarcity means increased competition for dwindling material resources. Abundance means vast computing power, connectedness and the ongoing “reinvention of business.” An abundance of action can lead to a scarcity of time or concentration, and vice versa. If you don’t think deeply enough, your strategy and creativity will suffer. In business and in your personal life, discover where you have scarcity and abundance. Consider how they balance and nourish each other. Continued rebalancing is a constraint that can drive your inventiveness.

About the Authors

Adam Morgan wrote the bestseller Eating the Big Fish and founded the global marketing consultancy Eatbigfish; business speaker Mark Burden heads the firm’s West Coast operation.

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.

Profile In Craft: Lesley Holm Art Therapist

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. 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.

When it comes to open ended problem solving and learning to improvise with what we are given; master craftsmen have something to teach us. Having to work with a material where they cannot be sure what will happen is something they are used to. Combined with the more structured training and education offered to us today, improvisational thinking in the face of uncertainty is useful to leaders in any sector. Even in the face of countless books and articles about how important it is, most traditional business school programs and organizational training fail to address sophisticated thinking about ambiguous problems.

Craftsmanship refers to something made with the highest quality. It requires a distinct mindset and approach. Values like durability, integrity, and calling are often associated with craftsmanship. But it’s more than that. Craftsmanship—to live a life and perform work with craft—is the struggle for individual agency in a world telling us to fit in. More than finding a calling, it is about understanding how to fully utilize ourselves and our unique ability to solve problems of every kind. My goal is build a bridge between the principles of craftsmanship in the traditional sense and apply it to our own lives and work.

Vancouver Psychology Centre

For Lesley Holm the dream was to work creatively with children in a way that would make a difference in their lives. Today she fulfills that dream in her career as an Art Therapist. 

She didn’t initially know that art, creativity and working with children would look like in terms of a career. Most people don’t know what that is; she didn’t either. Art therapy is more than analyzing pictures. It is a blend of psychotherapy and art where art is incorporated as part of the regular counseling process. Art isn’t the end goal. Art is an illustration of a client’s process and what sense they make of their image.

When Lesley was young, her parents separated. She remembers that being a chaotic, confusing and scary time. Art was a comfort to her.

Now, Lesley specializes in helping children of divorce and helping them through that process. The drawings don’t have to be great, they just have to be expressive.

“There isn’t any better reward in life than a child who knows that I’m really there for them.”

Christine Haskell’s research focuses on individuals dedicated to the craft of their professions, in pursuit of excellence, sustainability and integrity. Craftsmen and women use those principles to raise standards toward a better world. Her current work is featured in Look To Craftsmen Project. featuring the Profiles in Craft Series. You’ll find a trove of profiles of intriguing artisans and innovators spanning a wide variety of professions across the globe that illustrate her research with links to the full articles. Christine’s book The Future of Work Will Require Craftsmanship is due in late 2019. To understand more about Christine’s work, check out Our Current Problem.