Weekly Reads: Battlestar Galactica Edition

I spent much of my spare time during the past week watching Battlestar Galactica (the new version). It was my first exposure to the show — new or old — but from what I hear, I might have had my geek cred revoked if I didn’t. Midway through the second season, I can’t say that I’m necessarily hooked, but I do find it a fascinating show to watch.

For one, it’s deep. Want an action show? Sure, you’ll get bits of that here and there. But it’s a show that is not so much about blowing things up as it is demonstrating all that goes into making a society. From culture and religion to politics and control, from love and desire to hatred and jealousy, from morally right to lawfully right, it’s a show that dares to look at the unvarnished side of humanity — all the while, showing that it is our imperfections that make us what we are.

What’s most phenomenal is that it does it all as a cohesive story, with a flowing plotline. It’s not so much a TV show with independent episodes, as a space drama that just happens to be broken up into 1-hour blocks. Seeing the connections, understanding the relations, and discovering the patterns are part of what is so engaging about the show. So, I’ll keep watching.

Besides, I now understand the namesake for Fathom-Lord Karathress in World of Warcraft’s Serpentshrine Cavern. Although I dare say that FLK was a touch more of a pushover than Starbuck 😉

If you would like to pass on anything you think I might be interested in, post the link as a comment to this thread! I’m always looking for new things to explore. Note that comments containing multiple links are flagged for moderation, so if your note doesn’t show up right away, don’t worry!

Made Me Think

You’ll probably notice a theme in this week’s set of links. There’s a good reason for that. This week, it seemed as though a lot of what I read was really connecting with other reads. Maybe it’s something in the blogging water, or maybe it’s just a connection that my subconscious was wanting me to make. Either way, rather than listing everything I found, this week I’ve tried to pick a select few links that I think show the common thread most clearly.

The Number One Dream Killer: Doing What Works (from Zen Habits). The subtitle kind of gives away the “punch line” for this one. In this post, guest author Jonathan Mead argues that what really kills our dreams isn’t that we do what doesn’t work… it’s that we do what does work. Why I pulled it out is that this is an article about comfort zones — and, more specifically, about how staying with “what you know” (and with “what works”) doesn’t really get you anywhere. The take-away message is that if you want to actually live your dreams, you’re going to have to step out of what you know works, and take a chance on something that may not.

Succeeding by Helping Others Succeed (from Steve Pavlina). A lot of times, we know what “works” for us, and it’s really easy to focus only on that. In this back-to-basics article, Steve Pavlina points out that success isn’t just about us as individuals. If you really have something that works, what good are you doing if you just keep it to yourself? Instead, Pavlina suggests looking for ways to help others succeed — and then takes that as a jumping off point for launching yourself into a whole new direction — for both your life, and your career.

Top 10 Tools for Landing a Better Job (from Lifehacker). And what do you do when you’ve established your new direction, and now just need to get there? For most of us, there are two options: you can either do it on your own as an entrepreneur, or you can do it with others who are already doing it. When it comes down to the nuts and bolts of getting that dream job, this list from Lifehacker is a good place to start. While the tips may seem a bit obvious, it never hurts to review even the basics. Current economic climate or not, the little things do still count.

20 Steps to Better Wireframing (from ThinkVitamin). This ThinkVitamin article is targetted to designers and developers who find themselves tasked with the creation of wireframes — those basic outlines which help determine the future form of an application, website, etc. Now, such a topic may not seem to fit the “storyline” I’ve established above, but stick with me on this one :-) First, for some people (like me!) being able to create and design tools that people actually use is part of how we succeed by helping others succeed. The things mentioned in this article provide a good starting point for that career path. That’s the most obvious connection. But when you take the steps out of the designer context, you’ll realize that it’s applicable not only to developing outlines for websites, but also for outlining the life you want to live. Drawing on your experiences, being clear on your objective, and not letting yourself get lazy are good advice for life design, too.

Review: The Renaissance Soul

Are you a W.A. Mozart or a Benjamin Franklin? In other words, do you like to dive deeply into one subject and give it all your attention, or are you more happy when you’re jumping from idea to idea?

That question is at the heart of Margaret Lobenstine’s The Renaissance Soul. And the subtitle of the book (Life Design for People with Too Many Passions to Pick Just One) is a good first clue if Lobenstine’s message will resonate with you.

Before getting too far into the review, it’s probably a good thing to set the stage. So (borrowing from the back cover):

Do you enjoy following a diverse and evolving set of interests? Do you get down on yourself for being a “jack of all trades and master of none”? Do you feel trapped by others’ expectations of you to stay in your current field forever? Do you feel envy when someone says, “I’ve always known exactly what I wanted to do with my life?”

That description sounds very much like me, and so this review will be written from that perspective. If that sounds like you, then this review will probably make sense; if it doesn’t, you may have a harder time understanding exactly where I’m coming from. Just as I can’t understand how you can be wired to know what you want to “do with your life”, you may not be able to understand that I (and other “Renaissance Souls” aren’t wired the same way).

But don’t let that stop you… let’s get on with the review itself.

What’s It About

As I suggested above, The Renaissance Soul is basically a guidebook for people who (like me, Benjamin Franklin, Leonardo DaVinci, and a host of others) have so many passions and interests that choosing just one feels constraining.

Those of you who are familiar with Barbara Sher’s work will recognize “Renaissance Soul” as a synonym with Sher’s term “Scanner” — and they are in fact the same thing. In fact, Lobenstine makes reference to Sher’s work in her resources section as well as in some of her content.

The Renaissance Soul content itself is divided into five sections, intended by the author to provide a whole view of career and life design planning for the self-proclaimed Renaissance Soul. Starting from identifying yourself as such a Soul (and learning that there really is nothing wrong with you) through to learning how to model this personality for others like you (so they don’t feel like there’s anything wrong with them), Soul’s map covers the whole spectrum.

What is a Renaissance Soul

Lobenstine starts with a description of what exactly it means to be a Renaissance Soul. In the section entitled “Claiming Your Renaissance Soul,” she gives lots of examples of Renaissance Souls — the situations we find ourmselves in, the dilemmas we face, and she does a very good job of acknowledging that people in all walks of life and in all situations can be Renaissance Souls.

Some of the examples may seem a bit unrealistic to attain in our own lives (Benjamin Franklin being the biggest example), but it’s reassuring to know that if you’re a Renaissance Soul, there’s nothing wrong with you. Lobenstine also carefully points out that just because you have a variety of interests doesn’t mean that you automatically are a “genious” or more intelligent than anyone else — it doesn’t exclude the possibility, but being one isn’t a requirement.

That’s a good point to make, as it’d be easy to otherwise look at the classic examples of Renaissance Soul-“ness” (DaVinci comes to mind) and feel as though the book wasn’t really speaking to you. But Lobenstine is very careful to keep the definition very broad and welcoming, and it works.

How Does a Renaissance Soul Live?

The bulk of The Renaissance Soul centers around life- and career- design for Souls. In particular, she spends a good deal of time talking about identifying your Focus Points — interests and overreaching patterns of interests that draw you in at the moment — and finding ways to integrate those focus points into your everyday life.

Lobenstine dedicates a chapter to what she calls the “J-O-B” — a way to connect your goals and focus points into a career which brings them into alignment. You may feel that it’s impossible to bring all of your varied interests under one roof, but Lobenstine mentions many different techniques (such as the “umbrella”, in which you have one “J-O-B” that encompasses many areas: being a writer that writes about everything from Ancient Greece to emerging technologies, for example)

If you’re younger — high school or college age — Lobenstine has specific tricks on picking colleges and programs that can foster the … er… “Spirit” of the Renaissance Soul; if you don’t want to go back to school, there’s suggestions for that route as well.

One of the best sections in The Renaissance Soul is a short piece in which Lobenstine talks about perfectionism — it seems that for many Souls, perfectionism goes hand-in-hand. She notes,

What do you do if you’re a perfectionist as well as a Renaissance Soul? I learned long ago that it’s impossible to talk perfectionists out of perfectionism. A far better strategy for adapting to roadblocks created by this character trait is to learn how to become a perfect perfectionist — someone who knows when a task demands 100 percent perfection, when it calls for 75 percent perfection or 50 percent perfection, and when 25 percent perfection will do.

Even before reading about Lobenstine’s formula, this is something that I had found myself naturally starting to do, and let me tell you — it does make a big difference. Simply looking at something and asking if 100% perfection really is necessary can save a lot of headache.

Overall Thoughts

For some people, the notion of being a “Renaissance Soul” is foreign — societally, it’s seen as a bad thing, and such “souls” are called jack-of-all-trades’ or dilettantes. Where Lobenstine’s book shines is in showing Renaissance Souls that it is possible for them to find a place in this world which is targetted to “Mozarts.” Especially if you are looking to make a career move, or are just starting out in the career world, Lobenstine’s book offers some strong suggestions.

That being said, it’s not for everyone. Clearly, non-Renaissance-Souls won’t get as much out of the book. Apart from that, though, not all Souls are created equal. We don’t all function the same way — and as such, because Lobenstine often only offers one or two solutions, the suggested plan of attack just won’t resonate with all Renaissance Souls. For those that it does resonate with, it will really resonate.

I found myself actually falling a bit more on the side of “didn’t resonate”, to be honest. To me, this was especially true in the distinction that Lobenstine makes between Career Design and Life Design. Although early on, she acknowledges that “Renaissance Soul coaching … is not limited to career planning. It is about life design as well,” I found that for me the book was a bit heavy on the career planning side of things.

I personally think of career planning as an extension of life planning, and Lobenstine’s book almost put it the other way around: life planning read as an extension of career planning. Not that either is right or wrong in approach; it’s just a different approach that I couldn’t quite wrap my head around.

Whatever the reason, the main points of the book just didn’t resonate with me (the “J-O-B” idea, the “Focus Points” description, etc.) — but at the same time, I recognize that the book does have huge ability to resonate with people. At times, I felt the book was a little thin on explanation, but I’m also acutely aware that it may just be that it just wasn’t suited to me; I’m not sure.

My Verdict

Ultimately, deciding whether this book is “for you” will rest on one major factor. If you struggle to know what to do with your life, simply because there are so many things you want to do, then give it a read. The writing is light and easy, and overall it’s a fairly quick read.

Personally, I felt as though Barbara Sher’s Refuse to Choose! was a better overall read (it resonated more, and just felt better organized and more clearly written) — but I know people who have had the exact opposite feeling on the subject

At the very worse, you’ll feel as I did: a good read, but not quite right for you. At best, you’ll have found a book that shows you how to truly give your Soul a voice.

Either way, if you feel that you have too many passions to pick just one, I recommend giving The Renaissance Soul a look.

What I Wish I’d Known

I’m a pretty recent grad (albeit, from two degrees — I just couldn’t get away!), but I like to think that I’ve learned and grown a fair amount in the last few years. So when Trent at The Simple Dollar challenged his readers to answer this big question (What single piece of advice do you wish you had heard when you were about to graduate college?), I paused for a few moments to reflect on what I had learned “lately”.  Here’s what I came up with…

You have choices — more than immediately appear — and the good news is that there are no mistakes.

Now, I admit, it’s a bit esoteric and may not be very clear what I mean at first blush. I think a lot of the specific advice you hear for new grads can be wrapped up in this statement: “Travel before getting a job”, “Never stop learning”, “Don’t choose a job just for the money”

But there’s more to it than that. This isn’t just about an approach for new grads; it’s an approach for everyone to learn to take. It’s not an approach that I’ve fully mastered in my own life, and to be honest I’m not sure I ever will fully master it. But it’s a direction and a philosophy that I’ve found valuable, simply because it does allow me to grow, learn and develop within it.

So with that in mind, let me break it down a bit for you, and maybe show you what that statement means for me today (which, of course, may have evolved further by tomorrow!)

You Have Choices

It’s easy to point to times of significant life change (like college graduation) and point out all the opportunities that lie ahead. We get images of new horizons, broad open paths, and infinite possibilities.

The truth is, new grad or not, you always have new horizons, open paths, and infinite possibilities ahead of you. Why? Because you are always the ultimate authority in your life. You are the one who controls your destiny, because you are the one that can make the choices.

Don’t like your job? It is your choice to stay in it or to leave. Swimming in debt? It’s your choice to continue spending or start repaying. Out of shape? You can choose between watching TV or doing some jumping jacks.

You always have the choice to change your life. Even if it doesn’t seem possible right now, that doesn’t change the fact that it ultimately is your decisions that shape your present and future. Even refusing to make a choice is still making a choice — the one that says that the status-quo is okay.

If you’re unhappy with where you’re at, you do have choices. The only thing that can prevent you from taking advantage of this is you.

More Than Immediately Appear

In some ways, it’s easy to see the choices in front of you. Apple or orange? Walk or drive? Stay or go?

Sometimes, there are even so many choices that it can seem overwhelming — like there are so many possibilities, you don’t know which way to turn.

I experienced this when I graduated; the feeling of “oh my God, now what?!?” My problem wasn’t that I didn’t recognize that I had choices, but that I felt like I had so many options that I couldn’t just pick one. Did I want to do more schooling? Travel? Work for myself? Or for someone else? And in what industry? Something tech related, something more people-focused, in an office, out in the field, … so many choices!

I ended up drifting from thing to thing for about a year before ultimately realizing that my problem wasn’t too many choices; it was that I had another choice, but I had disregarded it out of hand.

For me, the ignored choice was to not just pick one thing to do “for the rest of my life,” but to take advantage of my many loves and passions, and pursue them all. Not necessarily all at the same time (although some fit nicely together), but to not to fall into the trap of believing that I couldn’t continue to explore new things as they interested me.

The reason I hadn’t initially thought of this is because it’s counter to societal norms. In our culture, we focus on the one “thing” you want to “be” for the rest of your life (the sign that you’ve “grown up”). “What do you do” is a question that implies a single answer — but what I realized is that just because it wasn’t common didn’t mean I couldn’t make a choice to pursue a widely varied life.

Eliminating choices is a good thing to do, but sometimes, it’s also valuable to realize that you do have more choices than initially appear. Thinking “outside the box” can sometimes be just the thing you need to set you on a new course.

There Are No Mistakes

Ah, but going outside of the “normal” set of choices can be dangerous, right? After all, aren’t these well-established ideas “well-established” for a reason?

There’s a saying, “common sense is rarely common, and seldom sensical.” While that isn’t true in all cases, that doesn’t preclude the possiblity that doing something differently will turn out alright.

But even more than that, simply making the choice to try something will ultimately make you happier in the long run — even if that choice doesn’t work out the way you thought.

The reason is that making decisions allows our brains to live with and adjust to the resultant new realities. The outcome is that the simple act of making a choice can make you happier. Even if the choice made appears to be the “wrong” one, research shows that our minds are so adaptive that in only a very short amount of time after making a decision, we can be happy with the decision (I’ve written a fair amount about this aspect of choice before, so I’ll just leave it at that for now).

Ultimately, making mistakes is how we learn. If we never lost our balance, we wouldn’t know how to keep it. As I’ve noted before, “there are no mistakes, just opportunities to learn.”

Does It Make A Difference?

Would the advice — you have choices (more than immediately appear) and the good news is that there are no mistakes – have actually “changed my life” if I were to receive it when I was about to graduate — either the first or second time?

To be honest, I’m not actually sure. It certainly is the biggest thing I’ve learned since then. Understanding that I ultimately make the choices that determine the direction of my life, that I don’t have to be constrained to the obvious or normal path, and that any mistakes I make along the way serve to make me stronger and happier has made a massive difference in my own life.

I don’t know that just “hearing” this advice would have impacted me in the way that learning it by experience and trial-and-error has. But maybe, it will resonate with some of you, and help you see things in a different light.

What say you?

A Learner’s Place

There’s been a lot said (and written) lately about what to do when (not if — it’s never if) you’re laid off from your job.  One popular suggestion that keeps coming up over and over again is “go back to school.”

Now, that’s great for those of us who work in higher education. But “go back to school” isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution; as I wrote the other day, standard educational models can really get in the way of learning for some of us.

The Lazy Hiring Manager’s Guide to Personnel

The bigger problem with this advice is it feeds into the absolutely rediculous idea that somehow, learning something in a classroom is more valuable than learning it on your own.

I’ve always been incredibly frustrated by job postings that require a certain certification, because in my mind, all that most of those certifications show is that you know how to memorize facts and write tests. They don’t take into account your transferrable skills, for one. They also don’t show how you’ll actually handle things on the job.

Take a typical IT job posting, which very often requires a certification of some sort. The ones that make me laugh most are the ones that require you to have “a certification”, without specifying what sort. A networking certification won’t help you if you’re going to be doing database programming all day. That you can get a databases job with a networking certification, in my mind, reeks of laziness on the part of whoever is doing the hiring. It’s as if they want the piece of paper to do the thinking for them.

But what the lazy hiring managers miss out on by relying on those papers are all those candidates who are automatically screened out by the computer, before any human being ever sees the application.

They miss the arts student who spent the last 10 years of his life building and supporting a database for three local businesses. The one who, in exchange for having access to equipment and supplies, got up every Saturday morning to teach at-risk teens how to build websites, design user-interfaces and hook into web-enabled databases.

They miss the high school drop-out who was bored in school because she picked things up so quickly. She’s the one who was bored in junior high computer class and spent all her time sitting in the back, writing games for her friends. The same one who has enough knowledge of the foundations of programming that she can pick up any new language in an afternoon.

I know many of you will say that strong experience (like those two fictional people would have) can get you into great positions, and I don’t dispute that. But I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that many great candidates get screened out by automated systems, and don’t stand a chance. They simply don’t have as many opportunities as a “certified” (but maybe less qualified or skilled) candidate may have.

It’s not that the certifications (education) are inherently bad; it’s that the system is bad.

By relying on a universal and generic program of study or certification, it leaves employers in the unfortunate position of being unable to find someone who is uniquely qualified to meet their unique needs. Wouldn’t it make more sense to worry about finding the unique people first, and then worrying about generic knowledge that a bright person would pick up in days, later?

Fortunately, some employers seem to have figured this out.

Life Would Be Pretty Boring

It’s been a saying for as long as I can remember — “if we all thought the same way, life would be pretty boring” — but recently have we started to see the effects that hiring only people who all think a certain way can have on an organization. Call it a “side-effect” of the plethora of certifications, diplomas, programs and processes that churn out un-prepared grads all the time.

Where as the system is built to churn out like-thinkers, employers are skill looking to reward creativity and curiosity. While employers say they want only those people who have a demonstrated ability to do well in school or training, they still are looking for people who can invent new ideas and infuse their businesses with the “next big thing.”

It’s when employers look at what they actually want (as opposed to what the certification boards say they want) that some stop looking only at what pieces of paper you have — or don’t have — to your name. These are the ones who want first to know what you can do for them, and who care less where you learned what you know. It is a recognition that some very qualified people come out of formal training programs, but also that some very qualified people come out of other paths, as well.

The good news, of course, is that there are the employers that value divergent thinking, creative problem-solving, and unorthodox proposals. There are ones that are supportive of professional and personal growth and development. There are ones that very often value learning for learning’s sake.

And when it comes right down to it, I’d rather work in that kind of environment, any day.

It’s not for everyone, but it doesn’t have to be. Again, it’s not about whether or not education is the right path for everyone. It’s not about whether or not certification is a good barometer or not.

It’s about understanding that not everything is black and white; that what is good for one person may not be optimal for the next. It’s about acknowledging that there is a place in our society for people who can think widely, who question endlessly, and who learn quickly. There is a place for those with a breadth of knowledge, who follow where their interests lead them, even if that’s not into formal training.

When All Else Fails, Diversify

But back to this idea that education will help you recession-proof your job, or that it will get you another job more quickly (should you lose yours in the first place).

Education has nothing to do with it. Learning has everything to do with it. By all means, spend your time learning and growing, whether by going to night classes or just by picking up a book — inside or outside your current field of expertise!

To borrow on the financial metaphor, economists have been saying it for a long time: diversify! diversify! diversify! The more diverse your financial holdings, the better luck you will have in riding out a long down-turn and maybe even coming out ahead.

The same can be said for learners: diversify! There is certainly a place in this world for people who know a lot about a few very specific things (specialists). But often, the people who come out ahead are those who are flexible, who can adjust to changes, and who have learned how to learn, because they are most adaptable. There is also a place in this world for those who know a little about a lot of things (generalists). Diversifying in knowledge, like in financials, is not a bad move.

And just in case you think I’m making it up, and there are no such people out there (other than you and I) who think that way, here’s what Marketing Guru Seth Godin had to say on the subject (this is just an excerpt, but the whole thing is fantastic!):

Here’s what I’d want if I were hiring a marketer:

You’re relentlessly positive. You can visualize complex projects and imagine alternative possible outcomes. It’s one thing to talk about thinking outside the box, it’s quite another to have a long history of doing it successfully. You can ride a unicycle, or can read ancient Greek.

You have charisma in that you easily engage with strangers and actually enjoy selling ideas to others. You are comfortable with ambiguity, and rarely ask for detail or permission. Test, measure, repeat and go work just fine for you.

You’re intellectually restless. You care enough about new ideas to read plenty of blogs and books, and you’re curious enough about your own ideas that you blog or publish your thoughts for others to react to. …

When I first read that “job description” in November, it immediately resonated with me. And not just because I can read Ancient Greek!

What jumped out at me then, and what still strikes me now, is how much of it is based not on what you know, but on what you have the capacity to know. It’s about visualizing and imagining; creating and sharing; discovering and questioning; growing and learning.

It’s not about what you have been taught, it’s about what you can learn.