“Pain + Reflection = Progress”

–Ray Dalio

As long as we learn to embrace one another, we will be all right. Maybe even great. I heard a lot of noise during this election and it buried and confused the issues for too many people. It’s still unclear to me what happened that allowed our election to play out as it did. Many people believe our country voted from their pockets, and I am not opposed to this idea because I experience love every day from people of all different political affiliations and backgrounds and from every corner of the earth.

Sure, a bunch of misogynistic bigoted racists may have played some small role, but I intuit that this situation is much more nuanced than what meets the eye and feeds into fear.

I will continue to work to understand the deeper whats. I’m calling them whats and not whys because the mind has a tendency to divulge into automatic implicit hate when you begin diagnosing people whom you’ve never set out to befriend.

We have to believe in the goodness of people. There is no other choice.

When I originally began writing a novel, I had not one but two job offers from interesting companies. Neither had anything to do with my creative pursuits, not directly. One was from a top IT consulting company. The other, a hedge fund, run by a geopolitical-economist billionaire and meditator known as the Steve Jobs of the financial world. At the time, I remember thinking that anyone who meditates probably sees the need for compassion in the world the way I do, and I hoped that those who held the keys to the kingdom knew something profound about creativity and productivity that allowed them to weave lives together toward progress rather than extinguish it. I also had this hypothesis that, if given the opportunity to work in an environment of radical truth and hyper transparency, the guiding sales pitch of the organization, nothing could blindside me the way layoffs in advertising and publishing had (though I had been fortunate to withstand publishing layoffs and, in fact, gained substantial experience as a result), and of course, there would be a lot less “things are the way they are around here because that’s the way they always are, the way they always will be” whenever I asked the eyebrow-raising questions of “why” and “can we change it so it makes more sense?”

I knew if I took the job in finance, I would be challenged. I knew I would add stronger management capabilities to my arsenal of life experiences. And I felt that, in order to have meaningful impact in the creative realm, I needed to understand how the world actually worked. What is art if not science? What is science if not art?

I’m not going to hide that there was also an ego thing involved. The odds of being hired at the most prestigious hedge fund in the world was something like 1 out of 400, and that’s of the resumes they bothered to look at, which in and of itself made it more enticing. Now, let me tell you; I don’t have an ivy league diploma or a PhD, though I do hold a degree in English, and for a good part of my developmental years, my stepbrother, who I adore, playfully nicknamed me Tarda, mostly to torment me, but he said it enough times that I believed him a little. Up until high school, I had been one of the smarter kids in the classroom. Upon my mother’s remarriage, I lost my sense of identity and confidence and my grades plummeted, partially due to transitioning from schools with fairly diverse student bodies into a top high school that frankly lacked diversity, while, at the same time, adjusting to my new role as hormonal teenage stepchild/sibling. This demise in my grades came as a surprise to some people because, as one person so boldly put it, “I thought that since you were pretty, high school was easy for you.” Of course, this sentiment did not help the situation. In fact, it only fed into the otherness that I experienced during that time period and acutely belittled my achievements and ignored the constant male aggression and violation of me personally and many of my beloved female friends.

Now, despite not having been a top academic performer, I was donned by my classmates with superlatives such as “most likely to succeed in the music industry,” “most musical,” runner-up for “most attractive” (obviously an important life skill), and something along the lines of “most likely to wear a turban around her head and open a Quicki Mart.” (Perhaps one of the more modest racist remarks I’ve encountered over the years.)

But I did have a few other important things going for me. Namely, I was and am a fairly observant person fortunate to have an arguably pleasant personality and a genuine curiosity and caring for human beings that some find refreshing and disarming and others find unsettling and exposing. I have always questioned the way things are to see what’s true, and I am very hard on myself. The other thing I had (and have) going for me is that I am brave.

As an immigrant born into a regime change that forced my family to move across oceans and continents and from state to state, I constantly was changing schools, and hence I grew particularly excellent at handling first impressions. Likewise, as a child from a hated middle eastern country whose family once had everything and then had it taken away, I knew the meaning of humility and gratitude. I knew what it meant to depend on free school lunches, and the kindness of neighbors who looked after my little sister and me while my single mother was in school, and what a toggle coat from the Salvation Army could do for a child through a Michigan winter. I knew what it meant to hold my mother in her arms when there was no one else for her to cry to but her oldest child. ( I love you mom) And believe it or not, this gave me strength; it gave me grit. It gave me a sort of understanding that everything is temporary, but that there is a sort of immortality to compassion.

It also made me want to be liked, as I assume all people do, and I believed that if I could just follow the middle path, I could connect with people from all races and backgrounds and they would find a way to let me into their hearts. And that is how I learned bravery. If you could hand out PhDs for open-mindedness, likability, and picking yourself up by your bootstraps, you may wish to consider me a viable honorary candidate. Okay, back to the job situation …

I assumed that a financial firm that warned the government of the ’08 financial crisis long before anyone wanted to listen and that was capable of managing 200 billion in assets probably had a little insight into the creative vitality I so desperately craved. I always believed that to create great art, one must understand how the world actually works, how business works. Plus, mindfulness in finance just seemed like a good idea, and I figured that, as a do-gooder type, which I still believe most people are, I had a responsibility or the way mom puts it, “the ability to respond,” to the growing need of putting trustworthy people into a shady industry.

So I took the job as a referrals program manager in recruiting for the god of finance. I thought, here is a figure looking to create a new environment of civility and honesty, and we need more companies who are willing to be this way. I want to help. I want to create a pipeline of smart, open-minded people who make excellent life choices, and know how to auto-correct their mistakes because they are relentless self-improvers. Who wouldn’t want to be around people like that?

Also, what would I learn about radical and hyper truth and transparency that I did not already know? Would I gain a deeper understanding of self? Would that which I assumed truthful actually be truthful in application? Would the tenants of hyper truth and hyper transparency actually feed our universal consciousness in a way that created a better world? I wanted to see the wizard in action. I wanted to know how the world really worked.

There were some disadvantages to the position. The hedge fund was in Connecticut and I resided in New Jersey. I had an open question about whether if I loved everything about my job, would an annoying commute matter? Or would my smitten lens merely shift away from the pain and zoom in on the pleasure?

I concluded that if I loved whatever it was that I was about to take on, I would eventually move closer, or it wouldn’t matter. I was also quite fortunate because I had, by this time, immersed myself in the company of my soon-to-be-family, for I was engaged, and my soon-to-be-made mother-in-law (a smart and savvy business mogul with a prestigious MBA under her belt; three successful children; and a coveted executive recruiting firm, among many other grand achievements) chauffeured my 29-year-old arse to and from work; as did a taxicab driver by the name of Nancy, who grew so fond of me that each evening she checked to see where I was, and would continuously ask “are you the only one there again tonight?” Not to mention a generous pregnant woman whose name I wish I could remember, who worked for the firm and sometimes picked me up in the mornings. Here’s where I’d like to point out that women are already helping women; we always are and always have been helping each other, though sometimes people like to ruminate over the baloney of how women keep other women down, which basically just distracts us from the issue of how to get to where we want to be.  

Unfortunately, I quickly learned I was not cut out for the job. Why? Actually, it’s fairly simple, but as many simple things go, they seemed complicated at the time.

One. The commute was killing me. It sounds extreme, but have you tried traveling three states on a frequent basis and upon your journey had to stand under the neon lights of 42nd and Eighth Avenue in the dark wee hours of morning next to Times Scare, across from the peep show place? It is a shock to the soul. Yuck.

Two. There is a difference between truth and transparency and running your mouth like a petulant child, which, as it turns out, is neither completely truthful nor is it actually transparent. In fact, it extinguished the creative energy in which I so excitedly expected to manifest into my own being. The environment I experienced was one part truth; one part transparent; and the other ninety-eight percent was unprocessed, often irrelevant un-amassed data that you or others were vomiting out into the world, either onto yourselves or onto each other, and in many cases this completely buried that one part truth—I found myself constantly holding a shovel, and wondering if I should just go forth and bury myself. I suppose if meditation was a requirement and not merely a suggestion, there would’ve been a lot less of that. My guess is that the company did not want to seem cultish, but they probably should’ve risked it. What is meditation if not the ability to reduce mind garbage?

Three. Transparency is not always appropriate. Sure, I would like to know there’s ketchup on my face. I would like to know I’m walking around with my fly down. But I don’t need it announced over the loudspeaker. There is a spectrum of transparency that either creates fairness or, without tact, creates fear. We spent so much time reviewing videos of people’s utter failures before I even started the work that by the time I began working I was already afraid. Now, I wouldn’t call it a “cauldron of fear” the way recent articles claim. That’s pretty darn dramatic. But, because I’ve been told, and I believe this to be true, that I am quite brave, and because I felt I needed to be too brave all the time, and because sometimes I couldn’t even muster the desired braveness necessary, I knew something was off. Don’t get me wrong, I definitely made mistakes. I’m not perfect either.

So what did I do? I went back and took the job with the IT consulting firm. And my next role, in some ways, was a perfect fit—help people make sense of boatloads of data, also known as “media asset management.” Only, this time, the data was the exact opposite of garbage; it was treasure. And the people that I loved—my clients—knew how to love me back. And this was a win-win partnership.

I stayed for over a year. I learned things about diplomacy I don’t think I ever would’ve learned had I not been surrounded by such intellectual, compassionate people. I learned that transparency is a card you play when the timing is right. That truth is sometimes useless. That dedication to excellence and precision requires the revelation that what you are and what you create is and will always be imperfect, and that imperfection is what gives life purpose. I learned that at every moment exists an opportunity to create the conditions for productivity, to create the life that you want—the world that you want. I learned that too much diplomacy is a giant waste of time and that it can almost permanently destroy curious minds. I learned that there always exists two games: the game of Creation and the game of Perception and that your temperament, genetics, upbringing and communication skills can make you better or worse at either of these games. I learned that what works is not usually this or that, but rather a combination of this and that. But only up until a point, where again too much and dilutes creation and renders us useless.

And then I left. Why? Well, that is a post for another day.

 

 

 

 

 

Most of you wouldn’t take me for a biker. No, not a leather-jacket-wearing skull-and-cross-bones and tattoos biker, though if you knew me in college, I had a pierced nose and toured Rome on my uncle’s Harley. (I think he might be legally blind by the way). I haven’t seen him in years. If you happen to read this Uncle, I miss you.

I was the kid who rode her bicycle down a flight of stairs hands-free with her little sister strapped behind her. I crashed into walls. I fell into thorns. I landed in trees. I was always the first to arrive at school, and the last to leave the playground. I would carry my bike to the top of the slide and see how far I could fly it and land it into the sandpit below the slide. Then, I would run a hose down the slide, and see how running water changed the velocity of the bike and the density of the sand in the pit. This is what it means to be curious. This is what it means to learn.

Those were good times. Unforgettable times. Often someone would steal my bike, and I’d go steal it back. And usually, it was a kid I liked. That was pretty common where I grew up. You never saw a bike locked up, and you never saw one torn to shreds the way you see sometimes nowadays. But you did see someone else riding around on it if you weren’t careful, and they could change it, for better or worse. It could take weeks, even months, to figure out how to get it back. I always got it back eventually. That is how I learned strategy.

People sometimes passed judgment. My hair was one large knot masquerading as hair, and my mom struggled to make ends meet. Why was I left alone so often? Was I neglected? We were immigrants in a nation that hated us, but that accepted us anyway. Long after the dealmakers make their deals, we are still outlanders. Yet, I am (and was) as happy, proud, and inspired by my host country, my home, as I am today by own Persian ancestry.

My parents were smart. Fun was part of everyday life. They made something out of nothing. So I made something out of nothing. They left war in pursuit of education. They divorced. They suffered. They continued loving anyway. They bent their knees and bowed their heads to the space between humanity and the universe, and they fed it more love, even when humanity fed them more hate.

They served the collective consciousness—that heaping ball of cosmic energy that giveth and taketh away. My parents did not neglect. They did the opposite: they trusted me.

Because fun comes from pouring love into the life you have, not in some hokey, tripped-out, oblivious sort of way where you’re handing out flowers to strangers on the street. Of course, if that’s your thing, no disrespect intended. I’m talking about the kind of love that leads a kid to curiously ask, “what does it feel like to go cycling down these stairs? Maybe my sister wants to come. What happens when you run the hose? Let’s fly!”  And then letting that kid go at it again and again until she understands the conditions that allow her to create the best experience with the tools she has until one day she has created an elating game that inspires all the other neighborhood kids, and they want to do the same thing, but better or different with tools of their own. That is productivity.

And this brings me to an open question I have about something I hear in Corporate America sometimes. Have you ever heard someone say, “I think he (or she) may be too much of a free spirit for this company,” like it’s a bad thing to have a free spirit, and that he or she should be rejected for it?

Do you think this is good? Is it actually true that being a free spirit is a bad thing?

I’ll tell you something: any company or person who wants to hire a caged spirit or wants to cage a free spirit is full of sh*t. Because freedom of spirit is the impetus for curiosity, and curiosity is the impetus for creativity, and creativity is the impetus for productivity, and productivity is what makes our world go round.

And as business owners, leaders, parents, educators, and members of society, we have a responsibility to fight for that spirit. We have a responsibility to create the conditions that allow ordinary people to make fun out of almost nothing, and not in that “fun is what you do after-hours” sort of way, or in that “fun is pizza and beer on-the-job” sort of way, but by getting off the smack that a free spirit is something to be afraid of. By getting off the smack that everyday playfulness is bad. By getting off the smack that hard work means working unhappily for long periods of time.

We need to create environments where people feel safe to explore; environments that reward individuals for their curiosities, regardless of how their curiosities come to fruition and how they pan out. We need to create environments where our differences are protected like treasures. We need to create frameworks that foster authenticity and acceptance. And we need to do it now.

Because pure fun is a byproduct of being your authentic self, and loving life is what makes people want to actually live their lives. That’s pretty important, don’t you think? The continuation of humanity.

And so I am told that the robots are coming. They will replace our jobs. It’s up to you to decide what makes sense, but I say, let’s go steal our bikes back.

If you liked this post, please share it.

Rocky is a highly curious person who wants to be exceptional. He has a question many people have. How can I be extraordinary? 

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I want to be the best version of me I can be. I want success.

First things first, Rocky studies hard and is admitted into a notable college.

Four years later, he graduates with a degree in liberal arts. He is recruited by a reputable company. They have high revenues, distinguished clientele, and accomplished staff.

The recruiter says, “we would like to offer you the role of Senior Associate of Button Pressing Operations. Despite the title, it is an important position. All of our products and services depend on it.”

“Hmmm,”Rocky says. “Pressing buttons, or button-pressing operations, however you define it, doesn’t seem true to my nature, strengths, and abilities. I am more of a creative person. I would prefer a more strategic role.”

“You finished school recently,” she says. “At your age, you should explore. What you need is to surround yourself with accomplished people. Your boss is accomplished. He is Chief Director of Global Button Pressing Operations. You will learn so much from him.”

She continues, “we believe you will have a wonderful career here. With hard work and discipline, we will make you a success. Have I mentioned the handsome pay?”

Rocky is handsome. His grooming supplies and education loans have left him with a hefty debt. Time is of the essence.

Reputable Company + Important Job + Accomplished Boss + High Salary + Hard Work = Success. Right?  His stomach churns.

With no time left to think, he slides his fingers through his silky hair and responds, “Why, yes, I am handsome, thank you. I accept your offer. After all, successful people are important people. I want to be successful; therefore, if I am important, then I will be successful.”

“Terrific!” the recruiter responds, agreeing with Rocky’s logic.

Rocky spends 4 years pressing buttons. He thinks, if I work quickly and for many hours each day, I will most certainly grow to be the best button-presser in the world! I will pay off my debts. My boss will think I am phenomenal. He is accomplished. I will follow in his footsteps and earn a fancier and more important title. People will like me. I will be a great success. I will be extraordinary. 

And people do like Rocky. In fact, he makes many new like-minded friends along the way, although he never hears from that recruiter again.

Together with his colleagues, he “works hard and plays hard.” He presses buttons for long hours each day. He guzzles coffee, eats glutinous meals, enjoys a nonstop fountain of scotch, wine, and fine beers, and what’s left of his precious time is spent watching mundane television shows and betting on sports games.

It feels good to be part of a team. It feels good to be needed. It feels good to bond. The team’s mantra is, “we’re in the bunker together!”

But Rocky’s gut feeling is slowly turning into a gut problem. He visits the doctor.

Doc says, “your stomach is growing a hole in it. I’m prescribing you meds.”

Rocky says, “will they work?”

Doc smiles. “They should lessen the symptoms.”

Rocky assumes, it’s all part of growing older. This is normal, right? Doesn’t everyone’s health deteriorate with age?  

“Thank you,” he says, and he takes the meds.

The next day, Rocky plans to hop back into work as usual. But the meds make him dizzy. He can barely get out of bed.

He takes a deep breath. It feels good, so he takes a few more. And a few more after that.

Suddenly he thinks, wait a minute, why is life a bunker? Are we soldiers in war? I am a button-presser. That shouldn’t be our mantra. Maybe I need a vacation.

He can’t remember the last time he went on vacation. He books a trip and off he goes!

It’s beautiful there. Walking along the beach, he looks up at the sky. The sun warms his cheeks. The ocean glimmers.

“Eureka!” He smiles. “I have an idea!”

Eagerly the next week, he returns to work. “I have an idea,” he exclaims. “It will revolutionize button-pressing forever. No human shall have to waste his precious life pushing buttons this way! Just imagine the joy we will bring!”

His boss laughs. “Nice idea,” he says. “But it’s not realistic. Looks like you’ve got a little too much sun.”

Rocky is confused. His stomach burns. He wonders, what am I doing here? What is my purpose?

He confides to his friends. “What should I do? My stomach isn’t sitting right. Why are we pushing buttons?”

“You’re being too hard on yourself,” they say. “That’s just the way things are, the way they’ve always been. We all have dreams about who we will grow up to be when we are young, and then reality settles in. Don’t give up button-pressing. You’re not a quitter. Button-pressing is your life. Button-pressing is who you are. Who are you if not a button-presser? What will you do without handsome pay? How will you survive? What will we do without you? We’re in the bunker together, remember?”

Overwhelmed, Rocky takes a deep breath. It feels good, so he takes another, and another, and another until he’s almost euphoric.

A thought pops into his head. A question, a series of questions. Who am I? Do I suck? What do I want?  

And as if from some deep arsenal of knowledge growing from within him, the answers emerge.

Oh Rocky, isn’t it obvious? You know what you want. You want to unleash your creativity, and instead, here you are pressing buttons. You’ve become uninteresting, you’re bored, and you work a job that goes against your gut. You drink too often. You eat too much, and frankly, your beloved handsomeness is decaying.

I’m sorry to tell you, Rocky, that your cohort is united in suffering. They believe they are in a bunker. Because they are in a bunker. Because life is a bunker to them. They point to your weaknesses and call them strengths, and demote your strengths to weaknesses. Don’t you deserve a shot at happiness? You’re in the wrong place.

Handsome pay, brand names, accomplished people.  It all sound great, but who is controlling your destiny? This is the checklist for someone else’s vision, the formula for someone else’s success. Don’t you owe it to yourself to define your own framework for success?

Rocky, you are ambitious. You are creative. You went to a notable school. What are you doing sitting here, pressing buttons, numbing your mind and your gut until there is a huge hole in it?

Listen Rocky, no one is immune from making mistakes. No one is immune from career paralysis. No one can define success for you. You must think for yourself. Believe in who you are. Believe in who you want to be. Acknowledge your nature. Your desires. Your abilities. Give your instincts a chance to guide you. Give your abilities a chance to flourish.  It’s time to take a risk. It’s time to break free.

The next morning, Rocky is afraid. His stomach still churns, but he decides it’s time to set out on a new journey. He doesn’t care about what accomplished people think. Okay, he does care. In fact, he cares a ton. But what he cares about more is what’s true. He cares about the approach. He cares about defining his own vision, his own strategy, his own path, his own framework for success.

And it turns out that once Rocky believes and invests in himself, so do his friends, and so do accomplished people. They give him a cowboy hat and a set of Moleskin notebooks and send him on his way. But not before throwing him a proper goodbye party.

So let’s all raise our glasses to Rocky, and to life’s most satisfying moments: those moments, when you, the individual, choose a pursuit worthy of your time, and give it everything you have. Not for the fame! Not for the money! Certainly not because someone said so! But because it brings true meaning to your life, AND NOT THE ILLUSION OF MEANING.

Rocky tips his hat and thanks his friends.

The End.

By: Tara Makhmali

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If you enjoyed this, you may also enjoy:

1.  Are You A Closet…Entrepreneur?

2. TED Video, Plato’s Allegory of the Cave by Alex Gandler

3. Scientific American, Think Twice: How the Gut’s “Second Brain” Influences Mood and Well-Being by Adam Hadhazy

4. Harvard Business Review, Mindfulness Can Literally Change Your Brain by Christina Congleton, Britta K. Hölzel, Sara W. Lazar

5. The Art of Mindfulness: Why Mindfulness Matters

6. When Believing Hurts

Read this and other posts at www.CommonSmarts.com

Somewhere, everywhere, toddlers around the world are teaching their parents to slow down, to take a breather, to just enjoy.

“Just enjoy!”

Oh how that phrase used to bother me! It meant “tolerate the intolerable, suck it up.”

I found a new way to hear it.

It starts with a question.

How can I experience joy right now?

Not tomorrow. Not yesterday. But this moment. This moment that is a present.

I don’t have to tolerate the intolerable. I shouldn’t.

What can I do to make this fun?

Zoom in on the pleasure. Pan out on the pain. Pick a new focal point.

Remove something from the recipe. Add something.

Lemon with honey, cranberries with sugar, a pinch of this and a dash of that is what makes a delicious meal delicious.

Maybe I’ll turn up the volume. There’s a song playing that I like.

Maybe I’ll tune out the noise. Now I can hear.

Now I can receive.

You don’t need to enjoy to be in joy.

You are in joy.

Euphoria is inside.

Happy Everything

“If you are absolutely content with what you have, there is no aspiration in life. It is important to have aspirations but if you are feverish about them, that becomes an impediment. If a cup is held under a tap that is running at full force, it will never get full. Run the tap water at the right speed and the cup fills up. This is what happens with people who are too ambitious or feverish.”

—Sri Sri Ravi Shankar

I cringe whenever I hear a hiring manager or recruiter start a pitch with some line about how the world is changing fast and how they need to hire “highly adaptable people with can-do attitudes who fit the culture of their company.” It’s a tired, non-specific line that undermines what an employer truly needs, what an individual actually has to offer, and it perpetuates an idea of “culture fit” without concrete or tested parameters of what “culture fit” means, let alone who is credible to actually vet for it or how it might blatantly or blindly foster bias, sexism, or discrimination.

Yes, obviously hiring people for their adaptable can-do attitudes should help lessen the dilemmas of change, particularly when your role requirements are crisp, and the scope of the role is accurately defined. That’s when your lovely-adaptable-can-do-culture-fit hire operates under an assumption that adaptation is a refinement, an improvement upon a role or function that is already working in some baseline way. Awesome.

But most of the time, companies that are changing are also unprepared for those changes, and role requirements are unclear and non-specific, and “adaptable” and “can-do” lends itself to ageism and reverse-ageism. It renders job-seeker experience and individuality non-essential since the individual has committed to the more dominant contract of nonstop adaptation and doing everything all the time under all circumstances, and “perfectly, please,” since the company doesn’t actually know what it is doing. If the individual in the role fails; or if the function of their department fails; or if the function of their company fails, then the employer or manager points the finger at the individual for not adapting fast enough, for not doing more. Sometimes when this is happening to a seasoned person, I’ve heard, “You are not fresh or energetic enough to meet the demands of this role.” To a younger person, the statement goes, “You lack work ethic.” And we all know that if the individual objects, well, then he or she is not being an adaptable-can-do player! Clearly, this is counter-productive. No?

Now I tend to believe that recruiters and hiring managers, and the management community at large, have good intentions, and this bad outcome is merely the consequence of confusion. I am going to go out on a limb here and say most people want to evolve at a pace that is in line with expectations. They want to fulfill the needs of peers, clients, and customers, and in a cheery “Yes ma’am” way.

Here’s what I think is happening. I think burned out managers are being told they must complete an assignment (or too many assignments) in timeframes that are not possible and not always practical. The saying goes, “Nine women can’t make a baby in one month.” But these folks are not in a position to control the situation, either from lack of power or lack of training/ability. There is an imbalance and the individual or the company is struggling to pivot, to push back, or to filter out non-productive activities, and, hence, they pass the buck to somebody else. Since they don’t have the time to determine or vet requirements, as their backs are up against the wall, they lob to a recruiter who doesn’t have all the pertinent information.

Great. Now it’s the recruiter’s job to find you the right talent, and you say, “Find me someone adaptable with a can-do attitude who fits the culture of our company,” when the statement at this point should probably be “Find me someone who is experienced, non-conforming, and strong-willed. We need to hire someone who helps design limits and parameters, someone who is not afraid to push back, someone who helps ground others in the face of obstacles. Someone with strong communication skills. We will need to determine the role requirements together! We are committed to cohesiveness, to compromise, to open-mindedness, to empathy, and, of course, mutual self-accountability!”

The Dangers of Recruiting for Culture Fit

Okay, let’s talk about culture fit. There is a growing body of employers who have developed a framework for what they see as the cultural pillars of their organization. These pillars are the guiding values and principles that they believe will allow them to succeed in business. This is the best case scenario for how companies recruit for culture fit. I won’t even go into the worst case scenario because there is fault enough even in the best case. Subsequently, they use this cultural framework to narrow prospects from the herd and hire people to run or manage the actual work. Seems reasonable, right?

Sure. But it reminds me of a similar scenario where a person identifies his or her ideal life partner by taking into consideration religious and political views, beliefs about family, beliefs about hygiene, beliefs about gender roles, beliefs about income, and so on. (2, 3)

How many possible permutations of a fit may there realistically be? Infinity? 100? 1?

What is the margin of error?

What is the probability that family opinion or “group-think” forms a predisposed bias?

What about the role of our neurobiological natures? How does that impact decision-making? (Wink)

It is a well-known fact that human beings are born with the tendency to reason or justify their way through almost anything—good and bad alike. We pick what we want to do, and then we rationalize it. If you want to learn more about this, I highly recommend you read the book, The Righteous Mind by John Haidt, where Mr. Haidt explains the tendency for human beings to first assume their instinctual beliefs as true and then they find ways to rationalize those beliefs as true, rather than actually question “is it true?” to determine validity. (3)

Let’s get real here, folks. Even if you understand at a basic level what values you are looking for in an individual hire, chances are you don’t know how to define those values; you’re probably not an expert. There are philosophers and scholars who have spent lifetimes exploring individual values. Do you think your recruiter or hiring manager is one of them? Probably not. Most recruiters and hiring managers have merely a cursory understanding. What qualifies them to make these assessments. I mean, really?

Therefore, when I think of institutions enforcing culture fit hiring practices, I cannot help but wonder how subconsciously or even intentionally institutions introduce prejudice into the process; how they are probably weeding out people who could be their best performers; how they are likely demoralizing masses of qualified people; how they are obliviously enforcing broken stereotypes; and how they use sweeping generalizations to assume a host of specific beliefs about individuals.

But if you are going to move forward with this approach then it makes sense to accept that imperfect individuals enforce them, and it is necessary to assume that you are susceptible to unconscious or subconscious or accidental bias. Therefore, you should build in meaningful protocols to prevent prejudice, to the extent that it is possible. I suggest systematically and iteratively posing three fundamental questions.

  1. How could we be introducing prejudice through our process and what problems might this create? (For example, maybe our corporate value of transparency has led us to hire many individuals who are more likely to speak frequently, loudly, and aggressively since transparency often binds with these characteristics, and also it binds with individuals who tend to experience less backlash when being transparent. Hence, we may be marginalizing individuals who historically are more likely to experience higher degrees of backlash when speaking without a filter such as women or individuals of different backgrounds and races as transparency can be and has been a punishable offense. Additionally, we have noticed that misinformation runs rampant throughout our organization, and correcting misinformation is both costly and exhausting.
  2. How can we reduce or eliminate this prejudice?  (We de-emphasize hiring for this value for certain classes of people or we adjust the weight of this value against others. We consider how this value manifests in different classes of people and customize accordingly.)
  3. What’s the benefit in fixing this problem? (We are more diverse, and thus, statistically more profitable. We produce higher quality work outputs since we’ve hired individuals who chose their words more carefully and that meticulousness has transcended into the work. Additionally, we manage the spread of miscommunication more effectively, a must in a large organization, all while making the world a better place.)

I intentionally use “could we be,” instead of “are we,” in the first question because it is easy to assume you are immune from this issue. The question is designed to push you to reflect on possibilities—to observe “what is” rather than what you assume is true.

So, how would I go about hiring if I were you?

There are some excellent recruiting firms out there that are more than capable of researching and sourcing to identify pools of potential candidates. And you should absolutely hire them to help with this. They have the tools and resources. I am happy to provide assistance with this, should you need it.

But the problem, as discussed, is not getting to the pools of candidates. Rather, the problem is wearing the right lens, both to identify the right pools, and to select the right candidate. Minimizing the margin of error is dictated by how well you define your own requirements, and the best people to perform the following exercise are those with the knowledge—the people the new hire will work with, will work for, will supervise, and equally important, if not more so, the domain experts (individuals who are exceptional at the craft you are hiring for).

Before I move on, let me say that determining whether personalities, abilities, and skills will complement and supplement the personalities, abilities, and skills of the actual people who are doing the work is no small feat, but with practice, you will improve.

Okay, let us get started.

How to Hire Tactfully

  1. Create a list of non-negotiable job tasks. Many people will tell you to start with the goal of the role. I would argue not to put too much weight into this. Goals are often psychological de-motivators, frequently incorrect, infrequently met, and are often ignored. (4, 5) It is not worth starting a relationship this way. You are better off allowing goals to emerge organically.
  2. Identify the skills and abilities necessary to do these tasks well. Here is where your domain experts come into play.
  3. Validate your list with credible people.
  4. Identify and evaluate potential pains of the role. For example, if this role requires the handling of a high-need, high-demand, client for long periods of time, how will you support this role, particularly in times of sickness, vacation, and during other valid absences? How will you empower the person in this role to set limits?
  5. Identify basic parameters for the role such as: pay range, expected work hours, and work location.
  6. Determine a reasonable time frame for filling (or adjusting) the role based on the actual talent pool, your current needs, future/consequential needs, and the strengths and weaknesses of your team.
  7. Identify common scenarios for the role, taking into consideration the personalities of the people involved. Design open-ended questions that start with “how would you respond in a situation where [insert scenario] occurs?”  Ask these questions in multiple ways through different interviewers and of interviewees. How you ask the question is as important as the answers you get. Candidates may change or refine their own answers as they go. This is a valuable insight. You may learn as much about the people who are asking the questions as you do about the candidates themselves.
  8. Have domain experts assess prospects for the skills required to accomplish non-negotiable tasks. This may be in the form of an interview. It may be in the form of a sample work request. It may be in the form of a new assignment given to the prospect.
  9. Take thorough notes.
  10. Reserve judgment until the end of the interview period.
  11. Observe the reactions of your cohort, and respectfully probe for specifics. Exchange observations. You may find there are other motivations at play. You may need to address them.
  12. Always return your attention to the list of non-negotiable tasks.
  13. Do not involve too many interviewers in the process. 3 interviewers per 1 candidate is probably ideal.
  14. Identify your top picks, taking into consideration the outcomes of all previous steps, and begin the offer process.
  15. At some time after the hire, personalities, skills, and abilities will grow more transparent. Adjust to them. Optimize for strengths, train where applicable, and minimize reliance on weaknesses. This is an iterative process.
  16. When you add or remove people from your team, expect to exceed in new areas and fall short in others.
  17. Always remember to ask, “How is this person smart?” rather than “Is this person smart?” and your team will almost always evolve for the better.

I leave you with my final thoughts. The fact is you will, without a doubt, work with people who do not wholly share your values, and who prioritize those values however they see fit, even when some—or many—overlap. In order to collaborate, we must commit to our differences as much as we commit to our similarities. Even if you think all this diversity stuff is a waste of time, you cannot ignore the numbers. According to an article by the American Sociological Association that cites to studies conducted by sociologist Cedric Herring:

Even if you think all this diversity stuff is a waste of time, you cannot ignore the numbers. According to an article by the American Sociological Association that cites to studies conducted by sociologist Cedric Herring:

“Companies reporting the highest levels of racial diversity brought in nearly 15 times more sales revenue on average than the lowest levels of racial diversity. Gender diversity accounted for a difference of ~$600 million in average sales revenue.” (6)

“For every percentage increase in the rate of racial or gender diversity up to the rate represented in the relevant population, there was an increase in sales revenues of approximately 9 and 3 percent, respectively.” (6)

“Companies with a more diverse workforce consistently reported higher customer numbers than those organizations with less diversity among staff. In terms of racial diversity, companies with the highest rates reported an average of 35,000 customers compared to 22,700 average customers among those companies with the lowest rates of racial diversity. The difference is even larger for gender diversity rates. That is, companies with the highest levels of gender diversity reported an average of 15,000 more customers than organizations with the lowest levels of gender diversity. Herring also found that the smallest incremental increase in levels of racial or gender diversity resulted in more than 400 and 200 additional customers, respectively.” (6)

When I think about racial equality, gender equality, and economic equality, I cannot help but think of the enormous power recruiters and hiring managers have to right the playing field and to launch us into more prosperous times. So please, if you care, seek truth. Seek kindness. Seek open-mindedness. Seek mutual respect. Seek, and you shall hire successfully.

References

  1. http://mdaily.bhaskar.com/news/referer/4444/understand-the-mystery-of-life-sri-sri-ravi-shankar-1201824.html?referrer_url=
  2. http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article/cultural-fit-a-qualification-for-hiring-or-a-disguise-for-bias/
  3. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/25/books/review/the-righteous-mind-by-jonathan-haidt.html?_r=0http://righteousmind.com/
  4. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/wired-success/201104/why-goal-setting-doesnt-work
  5. http://business.financialpost.com/executive/careers/why-stretch-goals-are-a-waste-of-time
  6. http://www.asanet.org/press/diversity_pays.cfm

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