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Abandoning Successful Careers to Embrace Our Vocations: A Less Than Historic Lesson from the Life of Vincent van Gogh

Posted by Ken Klaus on February 25, 2011

Many of us have probably felt at one time or another that we were in the wrong job or that our jobs lacked any real meaning or purpose beyond a monthly paycheck.  We can’t always explain why we feel this way; only that something doesn’t feel right or that life and work seem out of balance.  When our jobs feel like a “bad fit” we usually see the problem as a mismatch between what we are currently doing and what we want to do.  For some this problem occurs because they lack the right skill set, education or experience to pursue a particular job.  As a result the way forward tends to be reasonably clear, even if the transition to a new career requires considerable time, effort and resources.  But for others who have the right competencies and training the way forward is less obvious.  In this case they already have the right tools, but are working in the wrong jobs.  As a result they can stumble around for years making minor career adjustments or lateral moves that never really take them in a new direction.  But with very few exceptions a job in one organization or company tends to be exactly like the same job any place else.  Whether you’re an engineer, consultant, bank teller, flight attendant or truck driver the responsibilities and tasks associated with your job remain fairly constant.

For those who find themselves in this situation the prospect of continuing in the same career for ten, twenty or thirty more years can be daunting.  But why is the way forward so elusive?  Why do we spend years going around in circles – switching teams, managers or companies – but never locate the real source of the problem?  I think there may be two reasons.  First, we underestimate the extent of the change that needs to be made.  We are already using our talents and our training, we may also be well paid and highly regarded in our organization, and many of us will have already spent a decade or more mastering a particular set of skills – the so-called “10,000-hour-rule.”  In short we have achieved a high degree of success and we use our success as proof that we must be in the right job.  So the changes we make never take us outside our current set of tasks and responsibilities and we remain tethered to our ill-fitting jobs.  We also get stuck because we do not fully understand, appreciate or value our experience, training, and qualifications – the talent we have for getting the job done.  We think of our jobs only in terms of what we do or how we do it; but give very little consideration to the reason behind our work – the why.  While the what and how of our jobs can be used to define our competence, proficiency, experience and knowledge, the reason behind our work – the whyis defined by our values, passion, inspiration and dreams.  It is these less tangible qualities, I believe, that offer us a way forward.

Consider the painter Vincent van Gogh.  What if he had been employed as a paint-by-numbers contractor?  He would come to work every day and paint the pictures his employer requested of him – landscapes, animals, architecture, portraits, etc. – all predefined in terms of the content and the colors required for each segment of the painting.  The job would require him to follow the paint-by-numbers system and he would get paid based on the hours he spent painting or the number of pieces he completed each day.  He would clearly be working in a job that utilized his talents as well as one that incorporated his passion for painting; but would he find any real meaning or value in such a job?  And would transferring to a new organization or company or painting other subject matter using the paint-by-numbers system make him feel any better?  When we stand before the paintings of Vincent van Gogh, when we see the colors mix and blend and merge, transforming simple paint and canvas into priceless art we begin to understand why these beautiful paintings would be impossible in a paint-by-numbers world.  We comprehend as well why individuals like van Gogh, Cézanne, Gauguin, Rousseau and Seurat would never be happy doing this kind of work.

Many of us spend a lifetime in jobs that utilize our talents but never fully embrace our values or aspirations.  Because we get lost in successful and often lucrative careers, we never seem to locate our real vocations – the jobs we are “called” to do.   For some the way forward is clear: embrace your passion, believe in your dreams and invest your time and resources developing the talents necessary to reach your goals.  But for those who find themselves stuck in paint-by-number jobs, the path from career to vocation requires a different approach.  Instead of an MBA or doctorate, we must invest in a new vision – one that will encompass not only our talents, but our values, passion, inspiration and dreams.  We must also be willing to look beyond the boundaries of our current jobs and consider opportunities in other sectors or industries – the not-for-profit world, public service, or a new business venture.  When we risk giving up our careers to find a place where what we do and who we are begin to mix and blend and merge, we set into motion a set of changes that can transform our jobs into a true calling.  And though few will dare to venture into these uncharted waters, those who do may yet find a life and a career as beautiful and priceless as a painting by Vincent van Gogh.

Posted in change, competency, Job Fit | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

Black History Month: Reflections on Our Shared History

Posted by Ken Klaus on February 16, 2011

February is Black History Month.  A time to reflect on the contributions African-Americans have made in shaping our nation, culture and especially our civil rights policies.  A time to remember the women and men who spent their personal and professional lives working to make things better, not only for themselves, but also for their families, their communities and our nation; and not just for their generation, but also for the millions who came after them.  People like Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, George Washington Carver, Ida B. Wells, Jackie Robinson, Thurgood Marshall, Rosa Parks, and Martin Luther King.  I’m glad we set aside time to reflect on our shared history; something I think we generally undervalue, even take for granted.  Though we pride ourselves on being a nation of individuals, entrepreneurs, venture capitalists and captains of industry, our accomplishments stand on a foundation others have laid.  Our liberty, rights and way of life, here in the twenty-first century, exist because of the sacrifices others made in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, going as far back as the Declaration of Independence.  “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Yet even as this new republic was born millions of slaves living within its borders were denied liberty.  Freedom for all would not come for another century and basic equality for yet another beyond the first.  And so each generation had to take up the cause of freedom and equality, building upon the work done by those who came before them, each moving forward the cause of liberty one step at a time.  And so the struggle continues to this day.  Which is why valuing our history, reflecting on how we came to be the nation and people we are today and honoring those who sacrificed personally and professionally is so important.

These individuals – too numerous to name here, many already long forgotten – who fought first for liberty and then struggled for full equality through the long decades following the Civil War, they made possible the freedom and rights we share today.  We are the recipients of a great gift that would not exist without the contributions of those who came before us.  Our President, Barak Obama, stands on the shoulders of Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, George Washington Carver, Ida B. Wells, Jackie Robinson, Thurgood Marshall, Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King; as do we all.  The fabric of our shared history was woven by the people who came before us.  We would not be the nation we are and we would not have the freedom and rights we enjoy, but for the women and men who made freedom and civil rights their life long passion.  Without the contributions made by the people we remember during Black History Month the liberty we enjoy today would not exist.

But our history is only part of the story, the chapters that have already been written.  We too have a part to play.  We too must take up this struggle if liberty is to endure, if the generations who come after us are to have a better world in which to live and work.  Thomas Paine, in his treaties, Rights of Man, makes our responsibility in this matter clear.

Every age and generation must be as free to act for itself, in all cases, as the ages and generations which preceded it.  The vanity and presumption of governing beyond the grave, is the most ridiculous and insolent of all tyrannies.  Man has no property in man; neither has any generation a property in the generations which are to follow.  The parliament or the people of 1688, or of any other period, had no more right to dispose of the people of the present day, or to bind or to control them in any shape whatever, than the parliament or the people of the present day have to dispose of, bind or control those who are to live a hundred or a thousand years hence.  Every generation is and must be competent to all the purposes which its occasions require.

Man did not enter into society to become worse than he was before, nor to have less rights than he had before, but to have those rights better secured.  His natural rights are the foundation of all his civil rights.

To the same degree that we have been the beneficiaries – nationally, professionally and personally – of the many who came before us, who struggled and sacrificed to make the world a better place, we too must endeavor in this good and noble cause.  We must give of ourselves, so that those who follow after us will find that we have made the world, our country, our companies and our communities more civil, just, and attainable.  Liberty and equality for all was the rallying cry of the revolution and though today we regard these as our rights, as an end in themselves, perhaps they are better understood as a means to an end.  Our Pledge of Allegiance includes the phrase, “one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all” – but how much richer and meaningful these statements become when they are reversed: With liberty and justice for all, we are one nation indivisible.

Posted in community, leadership, passion | Tagged: | 4 Comments »

Paragons and Renegades

Posted by Ken Klaus on February 13, 2011

Recently I’ve been playing Mass Effect, a role-playing game (RPG) set in outer space.  (Feel free to insert your favorite Star Trek related nerd joke here.)  As with many of the sophisticated RPG options in the market today, the game is designed around a series of tasks, or quests, which get more difficult as the game progresses.  For me though, the actual game play – star ships, swordplay or sorcery – is not as interesting as the character development, the role part of the game.  Some of the RPG games I’ve played let you choose the moral disposition of your character, whether you want to be a good guy or a bad guy.  So from the beginning of the game your choices are determined by your role as the hero or the villain.  Accordingly your actions and personality are based on your predetermined nature.  However, some of the more sophisticated games, including Mass Effect, make your character’s nature a matter of nurture – meaning you become either moral or immoral based on the choices you make during the game.  In Mass Effect you develop either as a paragon or as a renegade.  But here is where the game and I started to have problems.

From the beginning I assumed each quest could be solved either “positively” (helping me develop as a paragon) or “negatively” (earning me points as a renegade).  So as the options were presented I made what I believed to be the “right” choice.  In some cases the “positive” and “negative” choices were clear.  But for some of the tasks there was only one choice to make and in almost every instance that choice was “negative” and earned me renegade points.  This not only frustrated me, it also made me question whether there was any point in trying to do “the right thing.”  I also thought it was unfair because in real life we always have more than one choice.  But do we really?  Are there times when “breaking the rules” is the only option?  The more I thought about it, the more I began to see that the game was playing fair – that there are times when the only way forward is to become a renegade.

But here be dragons my friends.  This is a slippery slope that can lead to all kinds of problems, not the least of which being chaos, anarchy and unemployment!  So the question seems to be, when is breaking the rules acceptable, even necessary, and when should it be avoided?  In his book The Way We Are, Allen Wheelis wrestles with this problem and suggests a way forward of sorts.

Does not all creativity originate in boundary violations, in breaking through to realms outside the old limits?  The completely moral life – that is, the meticulous observance of all of the rules – leads, for both the individual and the group, to a rigidity that falls increasingly at odds with a changing world.  Yet boundary violations, if reckless – reckless measurable, usually, only after the act and its consequences – destroy the individual and destroy the social order.  The individual becomes an outlaw, the group becomes a mob.

Creative change in a society issues from violations great enough to alter the social structure, but not so great as to bring it down altogether.  One wants a society of law that allows some laws to be ignored.  It is those violations we let stand that organize the ongoing transformation of social structure.  The observance of rules, with a wise measure of slippage, coupled with the violation of rules, with an ironic measure of prudence, creates flexibility, strengthens the group, and thereby creates the possibility of nonviolent change in the social order.

So the questions we need to consider then are first, whether the breaking of a rule is reckless, that is, does the risk – the potential consequences of our choice – outweigh the hoped for reward; and second, whether our violation of the rules also serves the interest of progress, meaning the way forward can only be achieved if the rules are broken?  I understand this is perhaps an overly simplified way to think about this problem and I’m not suggesting that the ends justify the means. Yet I do think that there are times when progress is utterly blocked by “the rules” – the business processes we’ve had in place “since the company was founded”; our multi-layered bureaucracies with their endless forms and approval chains; the “blockers” in the organization whose raison d’être is to obstruct, obfuscate, and aggravate.  In these instances I believe the judicious breaking of the rules is most definitely in order.  Understanding that the point is not to bring down the system (or your career), but to move the business forward – the end result being a stronger, more flexible organization.

Acknowledging that we may need to play the renegade from time to time is not easy, especially for those of us who, by nature, are designed to play by the rules: We want to do the right thing for the right reasons.  We want to work for companies that value and respect their workers and treat them fairly.  And we want to believe that everyone else in the organization wants the same.  But if we are honest, we know things are not always this way; and if we can learn to make choices based on what we know, then we can also learn to accept that we may have to break the rules so that the world in which we live and work can evolve beyond what it is, to what we want it to be.  Building a bridge to span this gap is only possible when individuals, who are paragons by nature, can also learn to wisely nurture their inner renegade.

Posted in change, development, learning, risk, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

Promoting and Poisoning Change

Posted by Ken Klaus on February 6, 2011

And now, at last, we come to the final post in this series.  Thanks for sticking with me.  We’ve already covered the necessity of choice as well as the catalysts and essential elements that ignite and fuel the transformation process.  Previously we also noted that there were agents that amplify and weaken the transformation process.  These agents are called promoters and poisons; and what is true in chemistry is also true in our personal and vocational lives.  There are attitudes, ideas, and people that can strengthen and support our efforts or can resist, even spoil our endeavors.  Though these agents will differ depending on our objectives and personal circumstances, I do think there are some that will always be present.

Let’s start with the agents that poison the transformation process.  Chief among them, I think, is cynicism.  A cynic is distrustful of someone else’s ideas or motives; but cynicism does not necessarily need to be directed outwardly, toward others; it can also be aimed inwardly, at our own thoughts and intentions.  Now questioning our ideas and motives is certainly a part of the decision making process; but cynicism is not the same as honest reflection.  Cynicism becomes an end in itself.  It is designed to obstruct and incapacitate.  A cynic, including our own inner pessimist, is only concerned with why something cannot be done, and does care to offer ideas on how to reach our goal. Cynicism is static.  It stands still, frozen in time, incapable of action.  Whereas idealism moves us forward.  It chooses to act and embraces change.

Another agent that is toxic to change is perfectionism.  Perfectionism poisons our efforts in two ways.  The first sounds something like this: “You’ll never get everything sorted out the way you want it, so why bother trying.”  There’s a truth hidden in this lie that makes it hard to dispute, which is why we so often accept it at face value.  The truth being that we will never get everything sorted out.  Life is complicated and messy and there are too many components to account for all the possibilities; but the lie comes in the assertion that we shouldn’t try.  Human history has shown that progress is dependent on the attempt, even if that effort ends in failure the first, second, tenth or hundredth time.  Success is built on failure.  If we don’t try we can’t fail. If we don’t fail we will never succeed.

The other way perfectionism poisons our efforts sounds something like this: “You’re doing it all wrong?”  Second-guessing every decision, critiquing every step you make, brooding over the other choices, the ones you “should” have made, becomes a drag, a literal weight, on the transformation process.  We lose momentum and, more importantly, we lose focus.  We spend our time drifting among the “what-ifs” and the path forward turns into a maze of endless possibilities.  A choice is a choice and once we make it we need to move forward, whether it leads to failure or to success.  When we choose to move to a new location, then we must leave our old homes behind.  When we choose to start a new career, then we must leave our old jobs behind.  When we choose to follow our own dreams, then we must give up the dreams that others have for us.   In the end we can either risk a change, and move forward with our lives, or we can play it safe and remain where we are; but if we choose the latter then we surrender all hope of ever finding any real meaning or purpose in life.

Which brings us finally to the agents, which facilitate, enhance and strengthen our efforts to change and perhaps also those things, which give meaning and purpose to our lives: optimism and connectionOptimism is so much more than “positive-thinking.”  Optimism is rooted in honesty and action.  We cannot simply hope that things will work out for the best; we must act and we must do so honestly.  When we fail – and we will – we must choose to persist, to move forward, and not simply fall back into the old routines.  We pause, re-evaluate, and adjust our course; driven not by perfectionism, but from an honest awareness that our first instinct may not always be the right way to go.  We all have a blindside when it comes to making decisions because we tend to overvalue our intuition.  We trust our gut more than is reasonable or rational.  Dan Ariely proves this point over and over again in his books Predictably Irrational and The Upside of Irrationality.  In the decision making process we are rarely (if ever) rational.  This means we need others to help broaden our viewpoint, to challenge our assumptions, and to support our choices.  Not cynics, but honest, invested, objective individuals who can help inform our decisions without undue influence or hidden motives.

Here is where connection becomes an essential agent in helping to promote and sustain meaningful change.  Having others – friends, family, and colleagues – who can offer honest, objective insight is critical.  Our natural – meaning irrational – decision making process is nearly impossible to overcome, even when we know we are being unreasonable.  We have only to look at our histories, the patterns in our lives that repeat over and over again to see this is true.  Though the final decision must be ours, having others in our lives who are willing to debate, disagree, and suggest other possibilities seriously ups our chances for success.  In her book, The Gifts of Imperfection, Dr. Brene Brown makes this point clear.

Connection [is] the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.  One of the greatest barriers to connection is the cultural importance we place on “going it alone.”  Somehow we’ve come to equate success with not needing anyone.  Many of us are willing to extend a helping hand, but we’re very reluctant to reach out for help when we need it ourselves.  It’s as if we’ve divided the world into “those who offer help” and “those who need help.”  The truth is we are both.

Change – meaningful, sustained transformation – will likely prove to be the hardest and the most rewarding venture we can embark upon; and reclaiming our lives and our vocations and our dreams may require a significant and fundamental transformation in how we think about ourselves and our place and purpose in this world.  But the risk, by comparison, is small.  Because if our lives and vocations and dreams are not already our own, then what can we loose by choosing to leave them behind in search of a more authentic and meaningful life?

Posted in change, failure, goals | Tagged: , , , , | 4 Comments »

Elements of Change

Posted by Ken Klaus on January 30, 2011

Over the past couple of weeks I’ve looked at the catalysts for change as well as the role choice plays in igniting the transformation process.  And though our failures often inspire us to make a change, motivation alone will not be enough to nurture and sustain our goal over the long-term.  Transformation requires more than just the spark of inspiration, it needs fuel, and this energy source must come from within.  No external source – whether family, friends, or institutions – will ever be strong enough, will ever last long enough, to see us through to the end.  This elemental fuel comes from within and when it is purposefully applied leads us from good intentions to meaningful actions.  These elements are courage, risk, and honesty.

Courage is almost always understood in the context of fear, and whereas courage is understood as a virtue, fear is usually regarded as a weakness.  Courage, however, is not the absence of fear and without fear courage has no value.  A. C. Grayling makes this point in his book, Meditations for the Humanist: Ethics for a Secular Age.  “Moreover, courage can only be felt by those who are afraid.  If a man is truly fearless as he leaps over the enemy parapet or hurls himself into a rugby tackle, he is not courageous.  Because most people fail to recognize this simple fact, the true quantum of heroism in the world goes unrecognised and therefore unrewarded.  The quaking public speaker, the trembling amateur actor, the nervous hospital patient submitting himself to needles and scalpels, are all manifesting courage.  ‘This is courage in a man,’ Eurpides further said, ‘to bear what heaven sends.’  Actually he said ‘to bear unflinchingly’, but by this addition he spoils the sentiment, because if courage requires fear, then flinching is perfectly in order.”

Fear, I think, is a gift and like failure it is often a great motivator.  But motivation is not enough.  We have to act and acting requires courage.  Most of us fear change; but if lasting, meaningful transformation is our goal then we must stand our ground.  We must courageously – not fearlessly – face each new day.  We must act in spite of our fear and not make the mistake of waiting until we are unafraid.

Closely allied to courage is risk.  Risk is frequently associated with chance or with what we cannot see or anticipate; and I think the underlying emotion tied to risk is vulnerability.  Vulnerability, like fear, is often seen as a weakness.  It is something we work very hard to hide from others.  A thousand years ago this was part of our survival instinct.  Living behind walls of stone was far safer than dwelling in a thatched cottage in the middle of a wheat field.  But there’s also a positive, even necessary, side to vulnerability, which I only just discovered this past week while browsing through the presentations on TED.com.  Quite accidently I stumbled upon an inspiring and deeply insightful presentation by Brene Brown on The Power of Vulnerability.  If you have the time I encourage you to listen to this presentation.  In fact, if you’re short on time, I suggest you stop reading right here and just head over to TED.com.  The central idea in Dr. Brown’s presentation is that without vulnerability we cannot be whole, we cannot feel connected, we cannot ever fully be ourselves, and I would add, we cannot really change.  Here again failure presents us with an opportunity – not for shame, which is far too often the case – but an opportunity to be open, to be vulnerable, to risk taking a different path.  But if we shun this feeling, if we reject openness, connection, compassion and courage, then the opportunity for change will be lost.  We will remain stuck in the routines and patterns that lead us back again and again to the same failures.  Courage, then, is not only a friend to the fearful, but also to all those who would embrace vulnerability and risk change.  But courage alone will not be enough.

Vulnerability also requires honesty.  Self-awareness is the key to our ability to be honest, both with ourselves and with others.  What we do not know about ourselves we cannot possibly hope to change.  In the first act of Hamlet, as Laertes was setting off for France, his father Polonius enjoins him, “This above all: To thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou cans’t not be false to any man.”  But from the day we are born we are taught the very opposite of this truism: Follow the rules.  Be like everyone else.  Don’t be different.  Go along to get along.  And sadly we do, without even realizing it, until we no longer know who we are or what we want.  And we spend our lives chasing only the shadow of our dreams because we have come to believe that our real dreams are too ambitions, to unconventional, too silly, too impractical, too whatever.  But coming to truly understand who we are, and what we want, and why both of these things are important, opens us to the possibility for real change.  James Hollis makes the following observation in his book Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life: How to Finally, Really Grow Up.

Some of us, understandably, do not wish to hear even this message of hope and personal growth.  We wish to have our old world, our former assumptions and stratagems reinstituted as quickly as possible.  Most of us live our lives backing into our future, making the choices of each new moment from the data and agenda of the old – and then we wonder why repetitive patterns turn up in our lives.  Our dilemma was best described in the nineteenth century by the Danish theologian Søren Kierkegaard when he noted in his journal the paradox that life must be remembered backward but lived forward.  Is it not self-deluding, then, to keep doing the same thing but expecting different results?

For those willing to stand in the heat of this transformational fire, the second half of life provides a shot at getting themselves back again.  They might still fondly gaze at the old world, but they risk engaging a larger world, one more complex, less safe, more challenging, the one that is already irresistibly hurtling toward them.

Paradoxically, this summons asks us to begin taking ourselves more seriously than ever before, but in a different way than before.  Such self-examination cannot proceed without, for instance, more honesty than we have been capable of.  Living within a constricted view of our journey, and identifying with old defensive strategies, we unwittingly become the enemies of our own growth, our own largeness of soul, through our repetitive history-bound choices.

Change – genuine, meaningful transformation – is hard and often requires heroic effort, which is why the virtues so often associated with heroes include courage, risk, and honesty.  Fear and failure may prove to be the motivation behind our efforts to change, but without these other essential elements we cannot hope to maintain the commitment – the fire – required over the days, weeks, months or years it may take to reach our goals.  Be courageous and stand your ground; choose risk over comfort – embrace vulnerability; and be faithful to yourself and to your dreams.  These are the elements that will sustain and nurture your transformation.

Posted in failure, fear, goals, risk | Tagged: , , , | 2 Comments »

Catalysts for Change

Posted by Ken Klaus on January 24, 2011

Change most frequently happens for a reason.  Transformation is intentional.  The natural adaptations that take place over tens of thousands of years are driven by something external to the organism – new predators, alterations in the climate, dwindling sources of food – which compel a change and ensure the plant or animal can not only survive, but thrive.  The same is true in chemistry, where the application of a catalyst – reagents[1] of change – can be used to enhance or even accelerate transformation.  Agents that hasten a reaction are called positive catalysts; while those that hinder or block changes are called inhibitors.  In addition other substances can be used in combination with a catalyst to either promote or poison its effectiveness.[2]

Though adaptation and survival are common reasons for change, there are occasions when change is driven not by some external force, but from within – by choice.  We choose to adapt, not because we have to, but because we want to.  And more often than not our choices are fueled and energized by a catalyst – a force that accelerates our will and gets us moving.  The most common catalyst for making a change, I think, is failure.  But almost universally failure is perceived as a negative, something to be avoided, a source of shame and regret.  We laud success and shun those who fail.  We link our value as employees and individuals directly to our successes or to our failures.  But success and failure are two sides of the same coin.  We cannot have one without the other.  To succeed we must fail – at least some of the time.  This means failure too has value; we need to fail if we ever hope to succeed.

The gift of failure is the opportunity to make a change.  As a catalyst for change, failure is unique because its transformative properties are only revealed when we make a choice – whether to persist along the same path until we succeed or to look for a new path because the one we are traveling has proven to be a dead-end.  Transformation – sustained, meaningful change – must begin with a choice.  If we fail and do nothing, then the opportunity for change is lost.  The catalytic power inherent in all failure can only be realized through the application of choice.

But choosing is only the first step, the spark that ignites the catalyst.  Change – true transformation – involves far more than just decision-making.  It requires risk, courage, honesty and perseverance.  Bigger, more important changes, may also call for promoters – like optimism, inspiration and collaboration – to increase the power of our actions.  And we must also be careful not to introduce inhibitors or poisons, like doubt, distraction and perfectionism.  Over the coming weeks I want to explore the reagents of change – risk, courage, and honesty – as well as the things that help to promote, inhibit and poison our efforts to change.  But as a starting point I would like to suggest that we must first begin to see failure not as the opposite of success, but as an opportunity for change.  Too often failure is used as a weapon, to demoralize and devalue, and we wield this truncheon against others and ourselves alike.  But we are worth so much more than the sum of our accomplishments; and even when we fail our value is never diminished.  Failure may be the end of an endeavor, or it may be the next step on the path to success.  The choice is ours.

[1] In organic chemistry, reagents are compounds or mixtures, usually composed of inorganic or small organic molecules that are used to affect a transformation on an organic substrate.  Wikipedia, Reagent.

[2] Catalysis is the change in rate of a chemical reaction due to the participation of a substance called a catalyst. Unlike other reagents that participate in the chemical reaction, a catalyst is not consumed by the reaction itself. Catalysts that speed the reaction are called positive catalysts. Substances that interact with catalysts to slow the reaction are called inhibitors (or negative catalysts). Substances that increase the activity of catalysts are called promoters, and substances that deactivate catalysts are called catalytic poisons.  Wikipedia, Catalysis

Posted in failure, risk, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

Choosing To Choose

Posted by Ken Klaus on January 18, 2011

As a rule I don’t make New Year resolutions.  Not because I have anything against making resolutions or because I don’t see the beginning of a new year as a good time to make a fresh start.  It’s just that I’ve come to see genuine, sustained change as something that requires a level of resolve that we renew, not with each New Year, but with every new day. The kind where you roll out of bed in the morning and remind yourself of the changes you want to make and the choices that will need to made in order to meet your long-term goals.  So when I made the decision to, um, resolve to make 2011 a “year of decisions” the irony of my high-minded thinking on New Year resolutions was not lost on me; but I’ve decided to hang on to what remains of my intellectual integrity and simply call this my 2011 goal rather than a resolu . . . well you get the point.

The goal in its entirety is as follows:

I’ve decided 2011 is going to be about making decisions. So I’m already off to a good start. Decision #1 – I’m going to stop complaining about the things I can change and work to make some changes. Decision # 2 – I’m also going stop complaining about the things I can’t change, since this is mostly annoying, entirely unhelpful, and generally takes away from the time I should be spending on Decision #1.

Though the point of the goal is to do less complaining – something about me that really annoys me – I felt the outcomes needed to be more tangible.  Hence the “making some changes” portion of the goal, which I anticipate will be the hardest part of the goal, because the ability to achieve genuine and sustained change almost always requires tough choices.  Choices I’ve probably known for some time needed to be made but was unwilling or afraid to make before now.  I’ve also come to see that by choosing not to choose, I’ve actually made my choice and it’s probably the wrong one.  James Hollis in his book, Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life: How to Finally Really Grow Up, makes the following observation:

“We all suffer from the lingering message of childhood: that the world is big and powerful, and that we are vulnerable and dependent.  Stepping forth into larger shoes, more spacious psychologies, remains intimidating throughout our lives.  Moreover, virtually all of us lack a deep sense of permission to lead our own lives.  We learned very early that the world exacted conditions that, if not met, could result in punishment or abandonment.  That message, overlearned and internalized, remains a formidable block to the ego’s capacity to elect its own path.  Yet it is clear that we cannot choose not to choose, for not choosing is a choice from which consequences flow . . .”

If the first part of my goal is the more challenging of the two, the second will likely prove to be more frustrating.  Coming to understand and accept what we cannot change is more a function of experience than willpower.  Moreover, while the intellectual and moral courage required when making a choice generally speaks to the integrity of our individuality; the ability to accept what is beyond our power to change speaks more to our maturity and understanding of our place in this world.  Though this understanding often gives us pause in our personal lives, in our vocational lives it can leave us feeling demoralized, angry, cagey, and unproductive.  The injustice or unfairness, real or perceived, of a bad situation at work can leave us feeling like little more than corporate capital – to be used as our “masters” see fit.  This can be especially true in Western economies, where our political ideologies strongly inform our corporate identities and where democracy and freedom of choice are sacrosanct.  But the truth is, unless we are self-employed most of us will never have the final say at work.  There will always be someone above us steering the ship or at the very least someone with the power to veto our decisions.  Understanding and accepting this situation, I expect, will significantly improve our level of engagement at work and may help us feel a deeper sense of contentment within our vocational and personal lives.

Which brings me back to the final part of Decision #2.  After committing to not focus on what I cannot change (actually I’ve only really committed to not complaining about it, ‘cause I’m all about setting reasonable expectations) I can rightfully return my attention and energy to making some important and possibly big decisions this year – choices that may lead me in a completely new direction or maybe even to a brand new vocation.  But more likely – and more importantly – making these decisions should lead to a deeper sense of meaning and purpose in both my personal and my vocational life, which now, in hindsight, may in fact be the goal I was trying to set in the first place.  I hope the same will be true for you.

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The Da Vinci Conundrum

Posted by Ken Klaus on September 18, 2009

Da Vinci Flying Screw

Leonardo Da Vinci was a very gifted man to say the least.  He was an accomplished painter, sculpture, engineer, architect, mathematician, musician, inventor, and, if you believe Dan Brown, a keeper of really big secrets.  And I can’t help but wonder if Leonardo awoke each day and agonized over how to spend his time: “Should I finish the Mono Lisa, get Peter added to The Last Supper, finish the designs for that flying screw thingy, continue working on the four armed – four legged man sketch (Note to self: I need to come up with a better name for this drawing), or maybe just work on my journals – so much to do, so little time.”

Few of us are as gifted as Leonardo, but most of us have excelled in at least one or two areas.  And chances are many of us have also found a way to incorporate our interests and skill set into the work we do.  If you have, then my guess is you’re also getting pretty high marks on your performance evaluations, because a high level of engagement coupled with the right skill set is the perfect recipe for success.  So if you’re like me, and not like Da Vinci, chances are your skill set is pretty narrow; which means your ability to be successful will be limited to one or maybe two areas of expertise.   Unfortunately this situation leaves many of us with a conundrum: how do we remain successful in our chosen vocation (success = engagement + the application of the right skill set) without succumbing to the mind numbing boredom that so often comes after years or even decades in the same role?  For some the answer to this puzzle will be to advance to a new role, adapting their current competencies or learning additional skills which will help them succeed in their new jobs.  But for others, who may not want or be ready to change roles, remaining focused and engaged can be a real challenge. 

Though the solution to this problem will differ from person to person and even from job to job, one fact remains constant: engagement is a choice.  We must choose to be focused, motivated, optimistic, and plugged-in.  When we’re feeling tired or beaten down, when we want to retreat and hideaway, we have to summon the courage to connect with others and challenge ourselves to move beyond what we are feeling.  We have to go on the offensive and not give in to frustration, boredom, or despair.  Often this will require some creative thinking on our part.  We might have to look beyond the boundaries of our job description and engage in tasks that will renew our focus and top-up our engagement.  We could join a blog – as a reader, responder, or better yet, an author.  Or grow our professional network by joining an on-line group, attending a conference, or simply finding others outside our organization that have a similar job function.  We could also mentor a new employee or informally advise a colleague from another department wanting to make a change.  Our choices are limited only by our imagine and our determination.  So if you’re feeling tired, unmotivated, or just plain bored it’s time to go on the offensive and take action.  The truth is I’ve been feeling a little defensive myself lately; but I’m already starting to feel better.  Cheers!

Posted in engagement, performance, social network | 6 Comments »

HR Carnival – March Madness Edition

Posted by Ken Klaus on March 4, 2009

carnival-of-real-estate  march-madness-video-game

This edition of the HR Carnival is hosted by Kris Dunn over at The HR Capitalist.  In honor of March Madness we’ve combined the Carnival with the latest poll from Fistful of Talenton the 25 best talent related blogs.  Not familiar with March Madness or the Talent Management Blog Power Ranking from FOT?  Here’s a synopsis from Kris:


Welcome the March Madness version of the HR Carnival!  Who’s the Cinderella Story going to be?  Who’s Duke, who’s UConn?  Who is Butler?  Who is Dick Vitale?

In the endless quest for themes to freshen this thing up, I think I’ve got a good one – we’re deeming this HR Carnival MARCH MADNESS, a hat tip to the coming college basketball craziness that will consume America for most of the month.

Here’s how it’s going to work – the blogs and posts below have been entered into the carnival as normal, and we’ve used them to create a MARCH MADNESS bracket with all submissions. 

We’ll use the attached bracket to run our next installment of the Talent Management Blog Rankings over at Fistful of Talent. Instead of asking our staff at FOT to vote on the blogs, we’re doing a a web poll and asking the participants and readers to vote on the head-to-head match ups. We’ll start with the round of 32, and then move to the rounds of 16, 8, 4 and then of course, the final match up. Winners move on, survive and advance. 6 rounds in all, 2 days to vote on all the matchups in each round (12 total business days in the tournament)


So head on over to The HR Capitalist or FOT and vote for your favorite posts.  Our own Mark Bennett is representing the TalentedApps team with his post: Where is Social Enterprise with no Social Contract?

The voting tool is located at the bottom of the post in the Quibblo survey tool.  Just place your cursor in the orange box to activate the survey.  Have fun!

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Is the bell tolling for the bell curve?

Posted by Ken Klaus on February 14, 2009


In an entry I posted last year titled, Taking the number out of the equation: Performance evaluations without performance ratings, I extolled the virtues of eliminating the performance rating.  Well actually what I said was “I am willing to accept that assigning a rating value is an easy and (mostly) objective way of evaluating worker performance.  But I can see no need to ever share the rating assessment with the worker (me) – because the rating is not meant for me, it’s just a tool for my manager.”  Assuming, as I did, that the HR department was closely following my posts, no doubt with great enthusiasm, I anticipated my proposal would be implemented that very same week.  Alas, I am still waiting.  What’s more, in a cruel twist of irony or possibly just well deserved Karma, I was recently asked to manage an internal performance review process we’re conducting within the development organization.  I’m still trying to work out the horrors I commited in a past life to have earned this privilege, but never mind – that’s not really what I wanted to write about anyway.  Getting back to the previous post, in the sentence immediately preceding the one I quoted above, I said “I think the whole bell curve model is a pile of horse manure – but that’s a topic for another day.”  Happily, that day has arrived.


Over the past year I’ve been contemplating how companies facilitate their talent review meeting.  Central to the talent review process is a box-chart analytic, generally in a 3×3 configuration, which most in the industry simply refer to as the nine-box.  For the uninitiated, here’s an example:

Nine-box Analytic

What I like, scratch that, what I love about the nine-box model is the multi-dimensional feedback it provides; helping customers not just to see what’s happening in their organization, but what they need to do to better align their talent management strategy with their business strategy.  The nine-box discussion makes the talent review meeting a true business driver and not just another dead end discussion.  Talent review meetings help companies assess worker engagement, risk of loss, organizational diversity, candidates for succession, and development gaps and they provide a starting point for addressing these challenges as well.  By comparison the bell curve analytic just feels outdated and sadly monochromatic.


In the global battle to attract and retain top talent it may turn out that the people you need to succeed are already working at your company; but if you can’t discover, motivate, challenge, develop, promote and compensate them, the battle may already be lost.  Talent reviews are one way for companies to identify, develop and reward both their best performers and their high potentials; but they also help to reveal the underlying reasons for poor performance –  workers who are in the wrong role, who need additional training, who are being poorly managed or under compensated – as well as those who simply need to be managed out of the organization.  The one dimensional feedback provided in the bell curve will never help to surface these critical path issues.  The nine-box, by contrast, offers a multi-dimensional perspective of the organization that can serve as the anchor for the talent review meeting and the cornerstone of a holistic talent management strategy.


I’d love to hear what you think about the bell curve, the nine-box, talent review meetings, or any of the other talent management challenges facing your organization.  In the mean time I’m off to lead this internal performance review and hopefully earn a little good Karma in the process.  Wish me luck!


Posted in analytics, Innovation, talent review | Tagged: , , | 9 Comments »