I recently received an e-mail sent to my business address that began with the salutation “Dear Ms. Anne,” — the kind of greeting that suggested that the rest of the note would offer me riches from some recently deceased Estonian cousin I didn’t know I had. It continued, “I know you have no idea who I am, however, I will try to keep this as short and to the point as possible” — words destined to cause a further sinking feeling about what was to come. But in the seconds I skimmed the note, a few words jumped out at me and I was intrigued. In three short paragraphs, Zanele Mutepfa, a junior at Portland State University in Oregon, told me that she was an immigrant Zimbabwean-born orphan and youth advocate who aspired to be a television talk show host. With a bravado that might have been off-putting, she said, “I assure you, my dynamic life story will one day hit headlines…but most importantly change lives, it just needs to be shared with the perfect person.” She was coming to New York City — might I have time to meet with her?I had moved from the hinterlands to New York myself, 35 years ago, with virtually no professional contacts, so when she closed her note by saying, “Some may think one of the strangest things to do is believe in a stranger, but if [Read more...]
I’ve never really allowed myself to think about luck in my working life. I shied away from the subject because it felt belittling to my efforts to admit that some — a lot? most? — of my professional successes might have been determined by circumstances beyond my control. But a line in Nobel Prize-winning Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow got me thinking:“Luck plays a large role in every story of success; it is almost always easy to identify a small change in
the story that would have turned a remarkable achievement into a mediocre outcome.”
All this time, had I been wrong?
Loosely defined, luck is something that occurs accidentally or randomly and benefits one professionally or personally. The longer the odds of the particular turn or twist happening, the greater the significance we’ll assign to our sense of how “lucky” we’ve been.
Behavioral and Applied Management experts have developed mathematical formulae that attempt to quantify these slippery variables. But I think there are more intuitive ways for us to think about luck in our professional lives. Here’s my take:
Learn to Recognize Luck When the Universe Knocks: Early in my working life, an instance of luck significantly altered my career
After graduating college as an art history major, I found work as a lowest-level-possible assistant at a big New York bank. The clerical work wasn’t remotely gratifying but — and here’s where luck enters — on the vast, 100-employee banking floor I happened to be assigned a desk directly in front of a woman who soon after went on to work for Children’s Television Workshop.
When I called my former colleague to see if she’d be willing to talk to me about her new job, she mentioned she needed a secretary — as they were still called in the late 70s — and hired me on the spot. (Professional Lucky Moment, No. 1.)
I certainly had no influence over where the bank seated me. And I was not such a go-getter that the phone call to my former colleague was inevitable. But the two combined just happened to connect me to children’s media, which turned out to be one of the consuming passions of my life.
Be Prepared to Be Lucky:
How we choose to think about luck in our lives is tied to whether we tend to see the world as the glass half-empty or half-full. In Thinking Fast and Slow, Kahneman offers his own formula for how professional success happens:
Success = luck + talent
Great success = a little more talent + a lot of luck
But for those of us who weren’t born with any single innate talent, here’s my personal twist on how professional success happens:
Reasonable success = luck + preparedness
(I’m not the first to have this thought. Benjamin Franklin aphorized that “diligence is the mother of good luck,” and a century later Louis Pasteur famously wrote that “chance favors only the prepared mind.“)
But learning how to put that notion into practice takes, well, practice.
I worked incredibly hard as a secretary (see Professional Lucky Moment No. 1), so when Professional Lucky Moment No. 2 happened, I was prepared. Not too long after hiring me my boss was fired, and I was able to step into important parts of her job.
What were the odds of sitting in front of a young woman at a bank in the late 1970s (there were three in the division at the time) who would leave to work in television? Not good. And the odds that person would be fired as soon as I’d learned the ropes, allowing me to move quickly up the ranks? Approaching zero.
But in both instances I had the sense to recognize lucky moments, and, more importantly, take advantage of them.
In Great by Choice, Jim Collins explores the relationship between hard work and luck. He posits it’s discipline that increases the odds of having a return on our luck. And I couldn’t agree more.
(By the way, I’m not unique in believing a random seating assignment was one of the luckiest breaks in my career. See what Liar’s Poker author Michael Lewis said about it in a commencement speech he gave at Princeton.)
Remember, What Looks Like Bad Luck Isn’t Necessarily:
But we can’t be lucky all the time. In 1996 my husband was fired from his job as editor-in-chief of New York magazine – a stroke of spectacularly public mega-bad luck.
As my husband wandered New York, trying to envision what he might do next, his cellphone rang. The call was from a literary agent he’d met a decade earlier, demanding that 1) she represent him and 2) he write “a big book.”
And so at age 42 he became a novelist – and when that first novel was published a couple of years later, he was waiting to be interviewed on a New York public radio show, when he happened to see a job posting on a bulletin board and that job – which he landed – was creating the weekly national arts-and-culture program Studio 360 which, almost 13 years later, he is still hosting.
So, was my husband, lucky? Yes. But ask him on the day he lost his New York magazine job and he wouldn’t have said so.
And me? Yes, I count myself lucky as well. Or maybe I just know to open the door when luck comes knocking.
WHEN I graduated from college in 1977, the world was still neatly divided into two spheres: work and everything else. Work was supposed to be a hyperrational realm of logic, filled with timetables, organizational charts and returns on investment. It was only outside of work that emotions — so dangerously ill-defined and unpredictable — were supposed to emerge.
But from the first day of my first real job, as an administrative assistant at the Park Avenue headquarters of a commercial bank that is now defunct, I realized that emotions were simmering everywhere in the workplace.
My desk, on the hushed, deep-pile-carpeted executive floor, was a few feet opposite the restroom doors. (Clearly, I was lowest in the pecking order.) Every few days, one of the three executive women on my half of the floor would rush into the restroom and, after a little too long, re-emerge with the remnants of a good cry still visible on her splotchy face. I also watched men dash into the men’s room and leave a few minutes later, tight-lipped and ashen.
Even as a 21-year-old workplace neophyte, I realized that emotion is a force that underlies all of our behavior. For my book, “It’s Always Personal: Emotion in the New Workplace,” I spent two years exploring Americans’ attitudes toward emotion at work today, and my findings suggest this amended version of Descartes’s famous line: I think and feel, therefore I am.
In the old days — pre-Internet, pre-cellphones — it was a lot easier to believe “work equals rational” and “home equals emotional.” But now that work and home life constantly bleed into each other, that distinction has become anachronistic and probably self-defeating. People text and e-mail their friends and family members throughout the workday, and they receive messages from colleagues and clients on nights and weekends and during vacations.
The membranes between private life and work, especially office work, have always been porous, but today employers and employees expect accessibility and accountability pretty much round-the-clock. And whereas old-school office memos and business letters generally weren’t expected to be friendly or candid — that is, human — business e-mails most definitely are.
Conversely, what used to be considered private behavior can instantly reverberate at work through social networking. People fire off e-mails late at night, only to regret their tone and intent in the cold light of day. Facebook friends from work can stumble upon wild and crazy pictures from a bachelorette party. Tweets and anonymous mobile video uploads can instantly broadcast unflattering emotional displays by surly customer service employees or misbehaving C.E.O.’s.
The conventional wisdom used to be that we brought home the emotions we couldn’t express at work — snapping (or worse) at blameless partners and children. That is still true, but what’s new is that home life, with all its messy, complicated emotional currents, has become inextricably and undeniably woven into the workplace.
The rulebook for modern office etiquette has yet to be codified. How do we avoid hurting one another’s feelings if everything is supposed to be rational, yet also transparent and accessible? How can others understand the emotion behind what we’re trying to say in an e-mail if no one takes the time to read beyond the subject line and the first sentence?
And the more we relegate communication to the electronic realm, the greater our longing for face-to-face contact. Our new “flat” organizational structures at work might seem to promote a more hang-loose level of emotional expression. But, if anything, flatter organizations tend to require even higher levels of emotional competency and effort in order to navigate amorphous command structures.
NO one is sure where the lines are anymore. Should we high-five an underling? Is it cool to make jokes with the boss? What if we overhear the man in the next cubicle crying?
Clear rules for this new working world simply don’t exist. But one thing is certain. The Millennials, a generation raised with the 24/7 naked emotional transparency of texting and social networking, is now entering the work force by the millions each year. As they replace old-schoolers born in the 1940s and ’50s, there is no turning back to a compartmentalized world.
I like to imagine that if men and women were to express more emotion routinely and easily at work — jokes, warmth, sadness, anger, tears, joy, all of it — then as a people we might not feel so chronically anxious and overwhelmed. By denying the range of emotional expressiveness intrinsic and appropriate to the workplace, we find ourselves at a loss for how to handle this brave new boundary-less world.
Overtly acknowledging how and in what measure anger, anxiety, fear and pleasure color and shape our working lives can help us manage those emotions and use them to our benefit, both at work and at home.
They don’t understand their anger.
“In a culture where it’s easy to fire of a snippy e-mail or text,” reported Elizabeth Bernstein in her Wall Street Journal column ‘Friendly Fight: A Smarter Say to Say I’m Angry,’ “most of have a hard time honestly expressing anger face to face. If someone upsets us, often we shout, stomp off, roll our eyes, refuse to speak to the person or complain to everyone else. Or we kid ourselves that we aren’t upset and subconsciously fume – until one day we explode over the seemingly littlest thing.” And no one likes to be on the receiving end of explosive anger.
Sound familiar? I bet it does. In the research I conducted for my book, 60% of all Americans reported seeing their boss get angry with someone on the job during the past year. And yet, none of us are ever taught how to deal with managing our anger or how to deal with others.
Anger is a biologically driven response to threat. When threatened, we release the hormone epinephrine, followed by norepinephrine (noradrenaline), prepping the body to react – increasing our heart rate and blood pressure, and narrowing our focus as we prepare to flight or flee. And this is what is at the crux of the issue for modern homo sapiens in the workplace: pretty much as they did 200,000 years ago, our bodies continue to automatically process psychological threats as physical threats. Deep inside we are all irredeemably very old school. But the reality is that reacting to a psychological threat with a physical response is wildly inappropriate. And this disconnect – this evolutionary lag in the development of more emotionally calibrated or sophisticated responses to psychological challenges – is a huge contributor to what makes navigating modern life so incredibly hard. As the economist Terry Burnham, the author of Mean Markets and Lizard Brains: How to Profit From the New Science of Irrationality, put it, “The caricature view would be, the caveman wins the battle, has more babies, crushes his enemies, then puts on a suit 10,000 years later and goes into a boardroom and still wants to crush his enemies.”
To be effective at work we need to learn how to handle this evolutionary gap in responding to non-physical threat. I have created many tools to aid us in developing this challenging skill and one of the best is something I call DING. Which relates to the concept of self-reflection or meta-cognition, which I’ll address in another post.