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If you stand for nothing, what'll you fall for?
Why understanding what matters to you is more important than finding your passion
It was early 2016, Hamilton was about to win 11 (!) Tony awards and the life of Linn-Manuel Miranda was going great.
In that period I also discovered Hamilton and started listening to the album on Spotify at an insane rate, but my career wasn’t going great. In fact I had to concur with Burr here: it was kinda draining.
I was a first-line manager in Booking.com, I was quite accomplished and leading quite a lot of people across multiple teams. And yet I couldn’t get promoted.
Worse than that, I saw a lot of people getting promoted around me that I felt didn’t deserve a promotion, or at least not more than me.
My head was spinning and my mood was spiraling toward burnout.
My manager at the time suggested that I get an executive coach, someone to talk to about my situation that was kinda unbiased and could help my clear my head. I am no stranger to psychotherapy, I had multiple therapist at that point, but I didn’t really know what a coach was and how that was going to help.
I believe that I accepted mostly because I felt I was cornered and had nothing to lose.
What followed is best described by images rather than words.
Joking, nobody has any idea what that clip really means or why George Lucas felt the need to use so much slow-mo except to cover something that they couldn’t reshoot.
But let’s assume for a second that this clip means what the folks at Lucasfilm wants us to think it means:
For the philosopher Plato, the cave represents the confusion between what is real, and what is false. It is a metaphorical journey into the window of one’s inner self, and just as Luke explores the inner sanctum of the cave on Dagobah, he must also journey within himself to face his biggest fears. Not only is he concerned that the shroud of Darth Vader and the Empire will overtake his friends, but he also faces inner turmoil through the revelation of what he may become once he sees the visage of his face entombed in the black mask of the beheaded Dark Lord. The test of the cave in literature is often as big of an exploration of unexamined geography as it is the unexamined self, and the poetry of the scene leaves us with a feeling of ominous ambiguity for the intrepid, young Skywalker.
My “Oh my god maybe I AM Darth Vader” moment never came but asking yourself questions like:
“Why do you want to be promoted?”
“What motivates you to commute to the office every day” (you know back in the days)
“Why do you do this job?”
Seems stupid at first, but once you have someone that doesn’t let you off the hook and force you to answer those questions seriously, they become very very important.
And then I discovered I didn’t have a real answer to any of those questions, I could only answer with platitudes, not deeply convincing answers.
I wish I could say that I was like Alexander Hamilton but in reality I was just sleepwalking.
This is when my coach suggested that I read “The 7 habits of highly effective people” (or just “7 Habits”).
If you are not familiar with the book, this is the self-help book that effectively created the category of self-help as we know it today.
I won’t lie, it kinda sounded like bullshit at the time. But as I kept grinding through the book (it is a difficult and slow book to read, it took me 3 months to finish it as I kept falling asleep and had to re-read pages) and with the help of my coach/therapist some patterns started to emerge, some lessons that changed how I think about myself and my career.
The core of Covey’s message is that if you want to be “successful” you have to not only define “what” successful means but also “how” you want to be successful. He compares our standard way of thinking about those topics like a tourist trying to find their way through Chicago using the map of Detroit, it doesn’t matter if they you the right address, you’ll get lost anyways.
Your mileage might vary, so I will stick with those lessons that I still remember and that are eachoing in my head today and shape the way I lead.
This is one of those behaviors that once you see it, you can’t unsee it. In the book this is called “Think Win/Win” unfortunately generations of consultants have destroyed the meaning of Win/Win for me so let’s talk about abundance mindset.
In my case the example was blatant, why did I care if someone else gets promoted? Did it have any impact on me or my life? Not really.
And yet I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was being robbed. This is a dangerous mindset called “scarcity mindset”, the idea that life is a zero-sum game and that if someone is winning then you are losing. It’s not only personal, it’s also cultural and deeply ingrained in the conservative European culture (as opposed to the American way of thinking about the American dream).
But even if this is just cultural, that cannot be an excuse, and there is no easy way out. You just need a good therapist and coach that makes you confront the bullshit you tell yourself, and in that process I learned something new about myself.
I often say that I would always choose evil over stupidity, because I can deal with evil, I can respect evil plans but I just can’t deal with the randomness of stupidity.
Sometimes this rubs people in the wrong spot, they can condone doing something bad by mistake but cannot condone someone planning and executing something bad.
Both point of views are perfectly valid, it’s a matter of personal values.
This observation pairs up with the idea in Covey’s book that we tend to center our lives around the wrong thing, some people center it around work, some people center it around money or status, some around their family or spouse.
But that’s a bad way to make long term decisions, because is based on a moving center that has complex interactions with the decisions themselves.
I recognize that for a long long time I made decisions based on status, I desperately wanted to be an high status individual (whatever that meant in the context) and the quest for status led to actions or decisions that were ineffective at best, immoral at worst.
So how do you fix that? You lead with integrity, you center your life around principles and personal values. Those can change but they change slowly, and whatever decision you make you will know that you can live with it because it’s a principled decision.
Of course the followup question is “How do I find my principles?”, that’s complicated to answer, all I can share is how I did and you can try it out but everyone’s path is different.
What makes you angry?
Through coaching we started isolating some events, an interesting observation about myself was that I could take a ton of pressure in a crisis but I seemed to be triggered very quickly in other situations that were relatively simple but mostly around people and hr processes.
Turned out that fairness was an especially important value of mine, a value I didn’t know I held so close to my heart. Other values were for example consistency (you do what you say you do) and intelligence. Once you start unpacking your values you can explain 100% of the bad/good interactions you have in life.
There are many ways to do this and a lot of people that claim that a 10-minutes exercise will fix that. Normally that just a pack of lies sold by consultants.
The fool-proof way is to get a good coach and go through past events in which you got particularly annoyed or angry about something, and go deep until you uncover the naked truth. A brutal exercise, I can tell you that much.
Plan your own eulogy
The 7 habits propose another grueling exercise, something that puts off a lot of people really quickly but that I, being a very visual person, find very powerful.
It goes more or less like this:
It’s the day of your funeral and all these people have come to honor your memory.
During the ceremony four people are going to speak about you:
A close family member;
A dear friend;
A work colleague;
Someone from a club or association you were involved while alive.
They share with others all the things they want to remember about you.
What would you like each of these speakers to say about you and your life? Which values, contributions and achievements do you want to be remembered for? What difference would you like to have made in their lives?
Write it all down, take the time, and then extrapolate. Are you really on the path of achieving this? For example I wrote down that I wanted every single one of them to say that no matter what was going on or how distant we were, when things got tough I would always show up and be there for them.
But if I did the next day, probably nobody would have said that, I had to change.
Never take anything personal
Habit #5 says “Seek to understand before being understood”.
I couldn’t really get the meaning of it, it seemed stupid at the time. Why should I see to understand if the other person refuses to understand me as well? How can I even begin to understand someone that is, for example, shouting at me?
Until, during a particularly stormy session, in which I was ranting about people trying to destroy my career on purpose or some other conspiratorial theory.
My coach asked: “Let’s assume this person is wrong and everything they wrote in your 360 feedback is wrong. What could you have possible done to make them feel this way?”
And just like that it clicked.
Seeking to understand others is about taking your pride out of the equation, stop taking things personal and put someone else’s feelings at the center.
In my experience coaching others, it’s possibly the single most powerful lesson people need to learn.
Putting it all together
Once I got my shit together, I started applying those lessons externally, not on external people but on the business:
Always have a list of principles for your team/department/company and use those for decision making
Start with the end in mind to make business decisions. For example the working-backwards methodology or the pre-mortem technique
Solicit customer feedback, always read customer service tickets and interact with people that use whatever you build. Empathize with them
How did the story end?
It was early December 2019, I was in London to celebrate my birthday. Looking back, I couldn’t believe that I went from almost quitting over a feedback to beging promoted twice in the span of 3 years.
I was walking from the restaurant to the Victoria theater to finally watch Hamilton live after years of memorizing the tracks.
While waiting for the show to begin I was drinking some beer and reading news coming from Wuhan where a new strain of the SARS virus was concerning the local authorities.
But we were thousands of kilometers away and I was fairly sure that that thing could never touch us.