Friday, June 12, 2015

The Secret Benefits of Being Organized

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Think about the most organized person you know.

Picture this person's organization in action. Maybe it's a friend who plans vacations with spreadsheets, arranging all the activities for a group, getting the best prices, all while making sure everyone has enough time to get where they need to be. Or maybe it's a colleague who takes fastidious notes during meetings and always knows the answers to questions that everyone else says, "I don't know. It's somewhere in email."

The Secret Benefit of Being Organized
Describe the most organized person you know with a few adjectives, but not "organized." We already know that. The first ones that come to mind might be:
  • meticulous
  • detailed
  • aware
But were any of these words on your list?
  • clean, tidy
  • dependable, reliable
  • punctual
  • efficient
  • smart
  • trustworthy
  • scrupulous
  • honest
  • hard-working
  • disciplined
We often associate these very positive traits with organized people. If you're a highly organized person yourself, do you think people see you as reliable, trustworthy, and honest?

Once you have the reputation for being an organized person, people really do start to think you have these good characteristics. 

The Reality of Being Organized
In reality, being organized has very little to do with most of these traits. But organized people benefit from the positive stereotype anyway.

Think about it. It's entirely possible to be organized without being clean or tidy. You can know where everything is, but never scrub your toilet or change the sheets on your bed. Likewise, an organized person can know when all the deadlines are, but not have any drive to get her work done on time. Motivation and organization are not the same thing. An organized person can be freakishly obsessed with putting all her cans in the cupboard facing the same direction, but that's pretty much the opposite of efficiency. It wastes time and serves no functional purpose. 

Structure vs. Fixation
Don't mistake fixating on making sure all the soup cans face the same way with creating other structural processes we organized people use to stay efficient. There are tricks organized people use that really do improve efficiency in the long run.

Here's an example: I'm meticulous in how I structure my computer folders and how I name my files. In the moment, it can seem like a waste of time. Why not just use the default file name so I can get to work? In the long-term, though, when I organize my folders and name my files a certain way, it helps the most pertinent work surface to the top every day so I always know what to work on and where the files are. It's June 2015 right now, so when I start my day, I open the 1506_JUN folder. The files at the top of that folder are from the beginning of the month (sorted by filename), meaning the files at the bottom are the most recent. When it's time to get to work, I don't have to think about what my priorities are. I look in the right folder, and the work announces itself. 

The point is that sometimes actions that seem wasteful and inefficient from an outsider's point of view are in fact very useful to staying organized. But sometimes, an organized person (with a whole lot of soup cans) can fixate on a task or situation that is very organized, but is not at all efficient.

The Downside of the Organized Stereotype
There is a downside to being stereotyped as a highly organized person, too.

People believe I'm very organized. I wrote a book about it. I have a weekly column about it. 

By association, people believe I'm dependable and reliable. There is some truth to it, of course. Time and time again, I do what I say I'm going to do when I say I'm going to do it. I'm organized in a way that lets me meet those expectations pretty consistently.

But sometimes, I fuck up. And when I do, it's extremely difficult to manage the shame that comes with it because of the heightened expectations people have of me to always be "perfect," I word I hate. Let's say I show up 25 minutes late. I feel bad about whatever happened that caused me to be late, but I also feel bad because whoever was waiting for me had the expectation that I would be on time. If I break from character, as it were, and do something that goes against the positive stereotype of an organized person, I worry people will see me as unreliable, not dependable, not moral, not trustworthy, the opposite of all the adjectives I listed above. The expectation that I will be on time is higher than the expectation that a non-organized person will be on time. 

There is definitely a presumed expectation, and as a result, a feeling that we organized people are constantly being judged.

Do you subconsciously hold organized people to a higher standard? Or if you're an organized person yourself, do you feel judged whenever you don't exhibit the stereotypical traits of a highly organized person?

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Is 'Doing What You Love' Overrated?

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My 60-something mother jokes about what she's going to do when she "grows up."

She doesn't feel called to her work. She works to get paid and meanwhile dreams about all the other possibilities.

Of course, there are too many possibilities, an overwhelming number, and there isn't time to pursue all of them, much less one of them.

I've been lucky to know what I love. There's never been a question. Any temptation I've ever felt about a different career in geography or behavioral economics or dentistry have always snapped into place with an immediate follow-up thought: "I should write about that."

Writing was my first love. I would do it if I had to pay to do it, rather than get paid to do it. I would work a different paying job in order to support doing it. I write even when I don't need to do it.

I used to go to church with my mom every so often, where they'd hand out programs so the congregation would know what to sing and when to stand. I'd always bring a pen, and I'd copy edit the hell out of it, nixing an extra space, pointing out inconsistent spellings, circling straight apostrophes that should be curly. I couldn't help myself. I am drawn to look closely at words.

Not every day at work is pure joy. Not every writing assignment fills my heart with elation and gratitude. And not every career step in the last 15 years was perfectly befitting of the massive amount of potential I assumed I had as a writer (one must be both confident and cocky to follow this pursuit). I took plenty of jobs that weren't ideal, but were close enough. I learned a lot by doing work that didn't seem to suit me to a tee. Through proximity and hard work, I figured I'd eventually get closer to my target as time passed. And I did. The trajectory was always right, even if each and every assignment wasn't.

When I talk with people who aren't so fortunate as to know what they love, I feel detached from the conversation, like I can never really know them or their mental struggles. I don't know what that's like to not be compelled to do a particular thing every day of your life. It must be agony.

Societally, we certainly make it seem like it should be agony. How much guilt and pressure we put on one another to find a "passion" and have a lucrative career! The message is: If you are not doing what you love, you must be unhappy, and you are failing at life!

It's a load of horse shit. 

Last night I read How to Do What You Love by Paul Graham (2006). It's a blog post that's upheld as having some kind of magical and yet realistic insight into life and the philosophy and economics of doing what you love and refusing to do things you don't love. It's also a load of horse shit, by and large. If, on the one hand, you are a well-to-do man born into a country that gives you some status off the bat for your particular race and gender, Graham's essay might strike a chord and inspire you to change a few fundamental aspects of your life and your way of thinking and living. On the other hand, if you are struggling to raise a family and live in a world where you have to work harder than other people do to earn the same things that privileged people come by much easier, then Graham's underlying premises fall to pieces.

Furthermore, maybe work doesn't matter that much to some people. Maybe how they spend their 35, 40, or even 70 hours a week earning money isn't what matters most to them. What about family? What about travel? It's not so crazy to think that people might choose to have two weeks of pure blissful happiness a year while, say, traveling, in exchange for 50 weeks a year working very hard at a job doesn't necessarily fulfill their soul. Who are we to judge?

I hate that we deny others' happiness simply because they work jobs that don't fill their hearts with meaning and purpose. Why do we inflict anxiety on people for earning an honest living?

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Saturday, May 9, 2015

What's It Like to Be a Woman in the Tech Industry?

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"What is it like to be a woman in the tech industry?"

Once or twice a year, I'm asked some variation of that question.

There are two inherent problems with the question.

1. I have only ever been a woman.
I have no point of comparison. What some people are really trying to ask is, "Have you ever been treated improperly because you are female?" and there's an inherent problem with that question, too. While some discrimination is on the surface and obvious, a whole lot of it is invisible. For example, if I don't know my colleagues' salaries, male and female alike, how do I know if I'm being underpaid because of my sex? If I'm not promoted, how do I know I was passed up on a promotion because I'm female? It's very hard to tell. When it's not hard to tell, people need to speak up, of course, and that doesn't just mean women. Men need to speak up, too.

2. I am not in the tech industry.
This point is extremely important because people get it wrong all the time. I am a writer. I write about technology. When I have to list my job industry, I choose "media" or "press." I cover the tech industry, yes, but I am not a part of it. If I were a  part of it, I would have a much harder time doing my job because a huge part of my job is to observe the tech industry impartially.

Why Aren't You Asking Men?
Women need to speak out when they know they are discriminated against. yes. But we also need to be asking men questions related to the gender imbalance in the tech industry as well as other industries and sectors that are male-dominated.

If men are in the position of power, what are they doing to change the gender imbalance?

I've rarely heard men asked about the issue. More people should be asking executives and hiring managers: How many women are on your board of directors? What are you doing to increase the number of job applications from women? Are you training women for managerial and executive-level positions, and if not, why not? If you don't ask men, they won't know it's their responsibility to do something different.

Friday, May 8, 2015

85 Percent of People Respond to Treatment; What If You're in the 15 Percent?

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"85 percent of people respond to the treatment."

"The teaching technique improves learning for 79 percent of the students."

I remember hearing stats like these when I was in high school. I remember thinking, "What if I'm in the 15 or 11 percent? Am I just ignored?"

The answer then was yes. 

Plenty of research is deemed successful when an outcome is positive for, say, 60 or 70 percent of the participants or subjects. Certainly, we should be happy for achievements that do so much good for so many.

But, if 30 or 40 percent of people can't be helped by something that's "proven" to work, what good is that for them?

Technology is working to change that.

Personalized medicine would totally change the way we approach solutions. The same thing is happening in education with personalized learning.

It's a wonder we don't have more areas where we're working toward personalized approaches. Medicine and health make perfect sense, of course. Every body is different. Every diet is different. People have different DNA, blood types, allergies, and biomes in their gut. The medicine we put into different bodies can't possibly have the same effect on all of them. There are too many factors. 

If time and money allowed, it would make more sense to look at the person, their body, their cells, and work backward to create health solutions that were right for them. Instead, what we do now is come up with a product and tested on dozens or hopefully more like thousands of people and tinker with it until it has a positive effect on most of them.

"Most" isn't good enough for me.

We can and should be doing the same thing with learning. We should be doing something similar with work routines. We shouldn't assume that 40 hours of work per week, on a Monday through Friday, 9:00 to 5:00 schedule yields the best results for organizations or employees. It might work for some people, or even "most," but not all.