I’ve often been surprised at the degree of honest self-awareness I see in the voices of the interview subjects at Adam Bryant’s “Corner Office” in the Sunday NYT. Almost every week, there’s at least one nugget of quotability that helps me see something more clearly in my own life path. And so, this week, this nugget from Sheila Lirio Marcelo, founder and CEO of Care.com:
“The first thing [the executive coach] gave me advice on, and I give it to everybody, is to journal. Write things down. When you come out of a meeting, or you come out of an interview, or you just finished running a session, what’s on your mind? How did it make you feel? How did you make people feel? What’s going on? Again, it was raising my self-awareness around my management style.”
Amen! During every American business boom cycle (and I’m old enough that I can say “every,” thank you very much), there are always entrepreneurs who are lionized in the press for just charging forward, trying not to stop to think, just indulging their animal business instincts or riding the wave or making the wave or what have you. This (let’s call him the “Nose for Success” Guy, or “Nose Guy” for short, and 95% of the time it is a guy) is just one of the American business types that we all recognize and are taught to admire. (One of these guys shows up as a character in Allegra Goodman’s new book The Cookbook Collector, which I just finished.)
The problem with this is that “be more like Nose Guy” is a difficult business strategy to put into practice, if by “strategy” you mean “principles or approach which, if you adopt it, will lead you to your goals.” The Nose Guy story is tautological. If you have the nose for success (and, really, we can argue about whether such a thing even exists, but grant for the moment that it does), and you find yourself in a lucky position, then, boy, will you do well. But if you don’t have it, saying “be more like that guy” — like the tedious urgings of George Costanza’s parents about Lloyd Braun (video), and indeed of anxious parents throughout history to emulate boring, conformist siblings and cousins — gives you nothing actionable to work with. To be more like, say, Warren Buffett or Mike Bloomberg — for you, [Your Name Here], to make your actual successes more resemble those of these people, what exactly are you supposed to do today?
Well, one of the very few levers you have, as an ordinary person with an ordinary nose, is self-awareness. If you’re lucky enough to be Nose Guy, you can just charge forward after the scent — you don’t have to be able to explain how you know which way to go, just go. But if you’re like the rest of us, you need to be more deliberate. And in the realm of normally successful business people, most of us get there — if we ever do — by being exceptionally deliberate. And (again, in the absence of The Nose) the way to successful deliberateness is awareness of the world, and of yourself, and how the two interact — knowing which of your instincts to trust, and which to second-guess, being able to predict how you will affect people, being able to motivate them to work with you rather than against you, and so forth. And this awareness, in turn, can be developed only by study of oneself and the world and the points at which they interact. And this study, in turn, is vastly aided by a self-reflective attitude.
It goes without saying that nowadays we all move too fast. But writing — especially coherent, thoughtful, synthetic writing — cannot be rushed. Writing up one’s impressions of a meeting or encounter — or, really, anything — is a superb opportunity to take stock of what went well, what didn’t, how you feel about it, and what to do next. Taking time to think and write about a failure is the right way to learn from it and turn the next opportunity into a success. And, more broadly, stopping periodically to take stock, to collect your thoughts, and to set them down is the best way to make sure that your life path, taken broadly, is leading to a place you will be happy to find yourself in a year’s or five years’ or ten years’ time.
This blog, rambling and random as it sometimes may seem to you, has been immensely useful to me in understanding who I am, what I’m good at, and what direction I should point myself in, in both the short and long terms. And, within the context of my job, the things I take time to reflect on are the things I handle best, and the areas in which I produce the best value for our clients, for my employer, and for myself. Marcelo’s advice rings true.