The single most persistent struggle during the past 20+ years of my corporate life, was the battle of time spent: How am I managing my time? Am I spending my time meaningfully? How can I find more time to spend to do X? Or frankly, more often than not, it was just this occasional and fleeting musing of “Where did the time go, [profanity]?”
When I first started working, life moved fast and then quickly turned very confusingly eventful:
- The first company I worked for fired me.
- My stupid start-up failed and had to be liquidated involuntarily.
- One of my jobs required me to help the children of high ranked officials of Chinese state-owned enterprises to fill out application forms to high schools in the UK. (I also needed to accompany one of the kids to start school in the UK, and then took his trailing grandparents to an extended, all expenses paid 3 weeks vacation to Egypt and Istanbul. )
I was clueless during my first 7 years of working. I was preoccupied with trying to look less like a loser by manufacturing stories about myself. Since I didn’t have many good contents to work with, the preoccupation with making myself look less pathetic was perennial enough to distract me from any other less useless ponderings:
“ I am a consultant! Oh now I am an entrepreneur! I connect people! I am worthy of my overpriced college degree from the Harvard (of the midwest)!”
Then Nike showed up. The role Nike offered was a six months contract. It paid less than my first job. I immediately took it, because it was an easily recognizable, mostly undisputably positive, and a “this-guy-is-cool” kind of label I could find to slap onto my self-image (aka “personal brand”). “Hello, I work for Nike. Yea, that Nike. “
I went on to spend the next 14 years working at Nike and then Apple. I tried to talk like Steve Jobs, hung out with Kevin Durant, managed stores in Lhasa, experienced run-ins with the PLA, tried to keep 500 people not too unhappy in one confined space. I plowed through all these with sweats, essential oil, some tears, Oprah shows, TED talks, and goji berries.
However, the reality was, I wasted most energy on justifying and rationalizing how I spent my time.
Earlier in my career, I did not think about this at all: 100 hours work weeks, overnights, hosting a 5K fun run during the weekend, traveling 6 days of out 5.
For a while, I thought I had it figured out: I was learning a broad variety of communication methods; I was honing my abilities to become a storyteller; I was learning how to solve complex business problems and pivot tables. These were transferrable life long skills.
While I was learning and growing, I was still struggling to get out of a headlock with my face stuck in the mud underneath some guy’s balls.
The never-ending wrestle matches between what I was gaining versus what I had to give up grew more intense. As I prayed more diligently to Tim Ferriss for answers, I realized and experienced three things, three things that all middle-aged corporate people would rejoice and chest pump with me:
1) Corporate temples train corporate kung fu masters.
2) Corporate melting pots make corporate steel.
3) Corporate kung fu masters and corporate steel can’t build real-world temples and melting pots.
Or in plain ESL English: What you learn from work, doesn’t echo in reality.
Corporate temples train corporate kung fu masters
The framework within a company defines how we work. I developed tremendous skills in packaging my stories to win the buy-in of bosses. These skills included the agility to share (distort) facts, sensitivity towards the audience (political savviness), and effectiveness of relationships (brides and tribes). While all these are universal skills, the issue was with the environment I was in while honing these skills. The companies defined the games we played. We learned and worked within these rules. You would never become a sprinter if you are training as a baseball player.
Personally, I wasn’t sure I was investing time to develop skills that would benefit my ultimate life goals. Okay, I actually didn’t (and still don’t) know what my ultimate life goals were. I just knew the hours we spent trying to decide what color of LeBron’s leather throne during his visit to Guangzhou should be, was very likely less consequential than we felt at that moment. I also knew I was expending energy to rationalize this wastefulness more often than I should.
Furthermore, the more senior I became, I was honing skills in making non-routine decisions. I was doing fewer skill-based work, such creating spreadsheets to decide how many phones the stores could devour. Instead, I was expected to recognize more complex patterns, understand my intuitions (aka guts), and make more “strategic” decisions. Yet, more and more studies tell us that these so-called executive decisions are more random than we think, and the actual skill we can develop to get better at this is more overrated than the promises of gong baths.
Another thing I realized was when the reality of the things we did as executives were actually more random than skill based, we developed or created additional skills to wrap around such randomness. For example, I found myself putting more effort into telling stories, or managing people’s emotions, in order to overcompensate my actual inability to know what the f*ck was going on. While these are fundamental human skills, once again, if the ultimate aim of all my efforts was to convince consumers that airbags save knees and AirPods save podcasts, directionally, there has to be a better aim to go after. Or the other way to think about this is, storytelling and relating with others are indeed the most important human skills to hone, and therefore we should try to practice them in domains that are the most reality-ready.
Corporate melting pots make corporate steel
One of the most beautiful things about human existence is being the alchemist of life experiences and knowledge. It is a beautiful thing to experience how adding a pinch of salt would explode the sweetness of pineapple slices. It is a gorgeous thing to witness tough love acting as the salt for self-realization. It is enlightening to listen to Yuval Harari explaining how gossips played a critical role in helping Homo Sapiens pushing the Neanderthals into extinction. Nature told us over and over again that reductionism could lead us to believe that fat kills and sugar doesn’t kill. Nature reminded us to always on the lookout for synergies as broadly as possible.
Corporate jobs present their own sets of boundaries and realities. There is huge inertia for employees to focus on our skills to synergise, to seek new information, and to look for the long tails of anything, within these boundaries. In other words, any effort to go beyond these realities will demand exceptional energy and effort that most likely would not be rewarded by the recognition within these systems. If I carve out additional hours and energy to explore the relationship between bitcoin and the redemption of the June 4th Massacre, and the result of that endeavor will not land me a promotion to a call center manager.
The endless struggles constantly demand me to exert energy to think about what else. They also turn these mud wrestle matches into bouts with depression and self-doubt (aka mid life crisis).
Fortunately, these struggles also pushed me to focus more on trade offs, and be personally responsible for making the efforts worthwhile. Life is short, and I should be binge-watching GOTs instead of tweaking my quarterly business review powerpoints.
I am fully aware of the utter uselessness of this kind of self-harm I am inflicting onto myself. I know it is my own daddy issues that I can’t just worry less. Moreover, I also know that I will never figure this out. #FML, I know.
Therefore the only thing I have figured out is: the least I could do, is to steer myself towards a direction that would be less wrong. The most useful thing I could do, is to sin less. After all, sin simply means “missing the mark”.
The mark I am now aiming after is to get into wrestling matches that would allow me to become more useful in the real world, to manifest skills within boundaries that are closer to the real world, and to reduce the variance between where I should be expensing energy versus where I am wasting my energy.
Yes. I am going to save pandas.
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