Thought Series: The importance sustained attention

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

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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.