Jamie A. Thom reached out to me recently with a fantastic letter, and kindly let me post it here for everyone. He talks about something I think a lot of us have experienced - having enough natural ability to coast through easy work, but falling far short of potential because of it. He shook out of it by taking a lot of action and throwing himself into the deep end of getting married, working internationally, and taking on some huge projects.
Pretty inspirational stuff. Here's Jamie -
Laziness - The Enemy of Victory
I am finally stepping out of the (more than 900 by now!) crowd of regular readers to get in touch and say "hello". First may I say how much I've been enjoying your blog over the past few months, I believe I first stumbled across you after reading your comment on a Less Wrong post about why humans are not automatically strategic. My only previous contact with you was a brief comment on your post about books worth reading to get started on Japanese history, I am currently reading Musashi as a result and am enjoying it very much - many thanks for those recommendations.
Reading LessWrong and your blog are small parts of a larger sequence of dramatic changes in my life that I have been quite carefully engineering over the past three years or so as I have actively sought ways to upgrade my life, work and understanding. I hope it is the kind of thing that you, and possibly your readers, might be interested to hear a little about.
It is easy to find excuses for our poor behaviour or bad habits; our brains are good at finding ways to excuse themselves and deflect blame, it is one of the many forms of social grease we all use to prevent being seen in a bad light and to feel better about ourselves. Guilt is uncomfortable, being excused (even by oneself) reduces that feeling. The problem with making excuses, of course, is that after a while the only person who might still be convinced by them is yourself. This is not to say I was a bad person, or especially lazy or untrustworthy but I was not nearly as good as I could be. I wont try to make an excuse for this now, but I was beginning to see through my own excuses and catch a glimpse of the core of the problem: I was clever enough to get away with being lazy.
I worked reasonably hard (or always gave that appearance), I was the go-to man for many in the company I worked for on all sorts of topics, I was definitely well paid and well respected and appraisal times were never a worry; pat on the back, keep it up, have a wee raise. But I was not the leader of the team I was in nor a manager, in many ways it seemed that I was at the peak of my career path but nowhere near the summit of what I could achieve. I had many good friends and many open collaborative creative projects, but no in-severable bonds and very few completed works.
My cleverness had certainly carried me far, allowed me to drift through life perfectly comfortably. Previous changes of job had always been career improvements, but were always forced by circumstance, never started because of my own initiative or desire. In many ways it was a comfortable existence, but I knew I was being lazy and getting lazier. I knew that although I was basically content, I wasn't really happy with how I was doing. I knew that I was wasting my talent. Despite my accidental successes, I was not really winning.
Three years ago this week, what happened to buck me from my stupor was this: I was visiting my girlfriend in Japan and I decided in the Ryokan we were staying at (more or less on the spur of the moment) to ask her to marry me. We had met in my native Scotland three years previous to that while she was studying for a postgraduate degree but she had since moved back home to Tokyo. The long distance thing had been working surprisingly well, all things considered, but we both wanted more out of our relationship and that meant marriage. We resolved that after the wedding it should be my turn to come and live in Japan for a while - in the interests of cultural exchange!
Suddenly laziness was not an option, in one year I had to arrange a wedding in Scotland, find a job in Japan, clear out my apartment in Glasgow and rent it out and culminate all this with a move to Tokyo. Cleverness and comfortable, lazy drifting were not going to be enough to achieve this. I needed to upgrade.
The specifics of how I managed my upgrade are well covered by the topics in your blog! The first step was to write down a list of the top level goals with deadlines, then break each of those down into a list of tasks (with deadlines) and then start doing them. I had not yet discovered GTD, but I had begun the climb out of the rut by using much the same technique.
Next I actively sought introductions from my tree of business contacts until I got hold of a director of the Japanese office of a company whose technology I was already an expert in and solicited an interview coinciding with my next visit to Japan. The take away lessons from this were that I had thankfully done enough favours for my web of contacts for them to overlook the occasional times I did not (through inattention and laziness) meet the mark for them, and also that you really can just pick up a phone and talk to the director of a company, they're human too and normally do not bite.
Clearing out my old home was cathartic and therapeutic, a lot of cruft can get attached to you over the years and it can aid in fixing you to a spot that you may no longer be really happy in. Have a clear out and de-clutter your life! Imagine that you have the option of storing two boxes of stuff in your parent's attic, posting two boxes of stuff to your new home and carrying only two cases of all other possessions, including clothes, and that's it. Everything else must be given away, sent to recycling or trashed. This is exactly what I did and let me tell you that if you feel like you are "stuck" I guarantee that you wont afterwards. Even if you aren't really planning on moving half way around the world (or anywhere at all) this will work.
And since I have arrived here in Japan the upgrade has continued: Actual GTD task management was top item and the benefits of it are immense, it much improved the task lists I was already using. More recently I have been actively pursuing the skills I need to move properly into larger scale project management, mostly it was the people skills and clear thinking, rather than the simple organizational ones, I felt I needed to fine tune and books like the classic How to Make Friends and Influence People and blogs like LessWrong and your own, of course, have given me great insights on improving in these areas. The pay off of these has been huge; I am doing so much more than I was previously, I am more at ease but do not feel like I am being lazy any more. I have lost almost all my fear of asking people to do stuff.
Early on in my new job in Japan, I was thrown into a project for a major investment bank where tempers were frayed to snapping point and an international team was struggling to get the technology to work reliably before a looming (and expensive to miss) deadline. I can't claim for a second it was all because of me, but the fire was extinguished and the go-live came in on time. Listening attentively to everyone in a project (especially the small voices) and remaining resolutely calm were my take away lessons here. We had all the right people and pieces to fix things, but everyone was too upset to listen to each other and work together properly. A little calmness and gentle steering was all that was needed, I think many of them didn't even noticed I was managing them.
This past October, I was thrown in at the deep end of managing a project that had been sold by a partner company to an Asian multi-national corporation for delivery at a location in Brazil! The project was poorly scoped and an arbitrary (and impossible) deadline had been selected by the customer (and accepted by the partner without consulting us). It was clear that our competitors product had previously failed for these guys not through lack of features but because they could not deliver it under a similar set of constraints. I spent a week in Brazil properly scoping the project, arranged a product expert consultant to come the next week to properly brief the end users and complete the business discovery we needed and engaged a local contractor to deliver much of the tech.
A couple of sleepless months back in Japan managing the whole show remotely (mostly when I should have been asleep) and the project got delivered. It wasn't "on time" (according to the customer's original expectation) but for something that didn't even start on the rails it wasn't too bad; a mere six weeks late and fully a month earlier than the deadline I would have set if I'd had the opportunity. The lessons learned document is pretty long but the key points, I think, are these: always take care to correctly assess and correctly set expectations of everyone in a project. "ASAP" is not a deadline and setting it against a task, milestone or Go Live will not make it occur faster, tasks should have dates and times for deadlines, not bunches of letters.
On Monday I am flying out to another Asian country to meet with the same partner and same multi-national about deploying similar solutions for many more of their world-wide locations.
In short, I have been having a large amount of victory for some time now, and I'm still nowhere near the top of what I think I can do. That thought no longer fills me with dread or makes it easier to fall back on comfortable coasting and laziness. I want more, and I am enjoying geting it. Some might think that I was lucky to get that focus that I needed, by falling in love with a woman from the other side of the world. Although I am certainly lucky in that regard anyone can find a goal that they desire enough to begin an upgrade process on their life. The big secret about it is that hard work does not necessarily have to feel hard and it is always better than feeling lazy.
Many thanks again for all the wonderful insights you publish on your blog so regularly, I appreciate them a great deal and look forward to hearing what you make of the contents of this email!
With warmest regards,
That was fantastic Jamie, certainly something a lot of us have experienced. You can check out Jamie's blog here - practicaluseful.com - and do comment here to let Jamie know if his experiences match your own at all.