Tag Archives: where will you be?

Coaching Fractal Action for Personal Development

We get frustrated when we are unsure how to act, and feel disheartened when we voluntarily or involuntarily act in ways that are not true ourselves.  We can get lost while searching for the sweet spot that lies between pattern and surprise, consistency and spontaneity, security and risk, familiarity and freedom, and order and disorder. We can use the idea of fractals, described in the Chaos Theory of Careers, to guide us into satisfying action that is spontaneous and consistent.

When I suggested in my previous post that people act before they think one common concern is that this means acting in an entirely random manner. Indeed I did suggest “committing random acts of contribution”. However underpinning these supposedly random acts is a thread of continuity. The random acts I advocated were not totally random, they were constrained to being acts of contribution.

What I am advocating is to repeatedly apply the same rule “to contribute” over and over again in many different contexts and in many different ways.  Through these acts, a pattern of contribution emerges – or in the words of the Chaos Theory of Careers a Fractal pattern emerges.

A Wikipedia definition of a Fractal captures what we need for our purposes. ‘Fractals are typically self-similar patterns, where self-similar means they are “the same from near as from far”…. The definition of fractal goes beyond self-similarity per se to exclude trivial self-similarity and include the idea of a detailed pattern repeating itself.’

So repeatedly applying the value “to make a contribution” whenever and wherever leads to a beautiful fractal of contribution.

We can use Fractals as a way of motivating us to action, in a manner that is consistent but not totally predictable; novel but similar; sort of like old, but new; trait-like, but changing; or in the words of H.B. Gelatt, focused AND flexible.

There are four steps to Fractal Action

Step 1  Define your value rule

This is the rule you are going to apply over and over again. It should be specified in one sentence and should NOT be over-specified. It needs to be self-evidently clear, but not limiting, and it is NOT time-based.

Here are some GOOD examples:

  • helping people less well off
  • reducing costs by 10%
  • providing motivational feedback
  • learning one new thing
  • trying one new thing
  • eating a new food
  • listening to a new song
  • meeting one more person
  • improving my grade score/sales performance/feedback ratings
  • all of the above
  • improving my performance
  • being polite

These are BAD examples

  • reaching 100K in sales by August
  • getting to 10,000 twitter followers
  • helping people by supplying them with more umbrellas
  • getting promoted to Senior Management

(You can see that the good “rules” are akin to values or higher order/fuzzy goals, whereas the bad examples more closely resemble the increasingly discredited SMART goals.)

Step 2 Apply your Fractal value to your next action

For any given situation, bring to mind your fractal rule and ask yourself:

“How can I apply this rule in this situation right now?” and then do it!

This step requires Courage, opportunity awareness and creativity to see how your rules are linked to the current situation.

Step 3 Repeat

The key to this process is to repeat the process continually and regularly, in as many situations, if not all the situations you find yourself in.

Step 4 Step back and understand the pattern that is emerging

Look to see patterns emerging over time, consider the outcomes of your actions and also the underlying process.  You should see developing a complex, changing, unpredictable pattern that nevertheless has a thread of continuity reflecting how you, your values and skills have connected with the world, and how you have emerged into yourself.

As Aristotle wrote “We are what we repeatedly do; excellence, then, is not an act but a habit”. And that is coaching fractal action for personal development – it’s simple but its complex!

Act before you think: In coaching and careers

“Nothing will be achieved if first all objections must be overcome” said the wise Eleanor Roosevelt.   Objections prevent action.  Objections to our own actions are ultimately authored by ourselves.  Others may advise caution or object, but it takes us to take on board and own those objections to prevent us from acting.  It is our thoughts prior to action that can ultimately present a formidable barrier to action.

Thinking before you act is what we’ve been all brought up to do.  We are taught to think a failure to think first must ultimately result in reckless disregard for our own or others’ well-being. The trouble is,  thinking before you act is not a fail safe process, because it is impossible to think through all the possible outcomes of a proposed action.

We cannot work out all the possibilities in advance, not only because there are too many, but also because our current vantage point may not reveal the complete picture.  I live near the coast, and if I am standing on one beach I cannot see the other one around the headland.  Even if I stand on that headland, where I can see both beaches, I cannot see around the next headland and what may be on offer there.  In other words, I might be missing out on a fantastic beach and I’ll never discover it unless I am prepared to act.

For people stuck in their careers, there is every likelihood that their heads are full of confusion, cautionary thoughts and frustration.   Clarifying their thoughts as a lot of coaching and counseling aims to do, may be doing no more than giving them a sharper picture of the beach they are on.   They will never fully appreciate the other great beaches until they are prepared to act and move to a new vantage point. Act before you think!

I am more and more convinced that we’ve got our priorities wrong by so strongly privileging thinking before you act in career coaching. I become even more convinced when I hear the countless stories from clients who “fell into” satisfying careers, or got there by being in the right place at the right time. These people (and I think they are the majority) got where they are as much by acting before you think, than thinking before you act.

So in your own coaching practice, take action, and resolve to encourage your clients to action first, and then collectively reflect after.  Encourage lots of small steps and little experiments, encourage turning up to things, encourage connection with others without any clear agenda, encourage random acts of contribution to others, encourage your clients to go forth.

 

How to get luck on your side

Here is an article in the Australian Financial Review on Luck in Careers. How to get luck on your side in your career. It is about luck in careers, luck readiness, and luck and career success.

Click this link for the article.

Click this link if you want to take the Luck Readiness Inventory.

 

 

 

 

Embracing Uncertainty in Life and Careers

What does uncertainty mean to you?  To many uncertainty is a threat to be avoided or overcome. To others it offers surprise and opportunity.  For some it is both of these things depending upon the context.

Uncertainty has a love-hate relationship with planning.  On the one hand uncertainty is one of the major reasons people make plans in the first place (if there was no uncertainty plans become redundant – what is going to happen will happen), but on the other hand uncertainty represents a threat to those plans.  Uncertainty has the potential to undermine the plan. See this link

It is not contentious that uncertainty exists in the world, and it is well established that uncertainty affects the careers of almost everybody.  We know that between 80%-100% of people report that an unplanned event has significantly altered their career plans for better or worse.

So the way people respond to uncertainty is likely to be an important factor in their success or well-being.   And this is where people do not get uncertainty.

Here is a graphic that I am going to use to illustrate why people often don’t get uncertainty.

Three Models of Uncertainty

Broadly speaking there are three different ideas about uncertainty:

1. Uncertainty is an occasionally present feature in otherwise predictable and well planned lives.  This model assumes that certainty can be attained for significant periods of time, and can be achieved through traditional planning methods like goal setting. Certainty and uncertainty are treated as polar opposites. I’ll call this the Traditional Planning model.

2. Uncertainty is rampant, extensive and ever-present. This model assumes that despite our best attempts, all plans are illusions of control.  This approach suggests we should give up on all planning and resign ourselves to whatever happens.  I’ll call this approach the Fatalistic Anarchy model.

3. Uncertainty is a constant and inevitable feature of all situations. It is wrong to think of Uncertainty and Certainty as opposites, rather they are composites – everything is comprised of a mixture of order and disorder.  Further the nature of uncertainty is non-linear and scalable. This means that sometimes very small, seemingly banal or trivial changes that have had little or no meaningful impact in the past suddenly change everything out of all proportion, or enormous changes can have surprisingly little or no lasting impact.  And every combination in between. This is the Chaos Theory of Careers account of uncertainty.See this link for more on Chaos Theory of Careers.

Depending upon which of these models of uncertainty people are using, they are likely to have different reactions to uncertainty.

Model 1 Traditional Planning Model reactions to uncertainty

Uncertainty is dealt with primarily with planning techniques, typically focused on goal-setting activities.  It is claimed the plan will provide certainty, motivation and reduce anxiety.  When uncertainty raises its head, it is assumed that people will be readily aware that circumstances have changed, and once aware they simply enter another planning circle to navigate them away from the uncertainty back onto their original course, or onto a new course of their choosing. This thinking is reflected in the idea that we going throiugh a planning phase. Then let it settle down, while we follow the plan, and then we go through another planning phase later on.  Turmoil-plan-calm-certainty-turmoil-plan-calm-certianty is the way the world is envisaged.  The diagram below illustrates this point.

 

Typically Model 1 thinkers claim that failure to plan will inevitably result in adopting Model 2 behavior.

Model 2 Fatalistic Anarchy Model

Everything is random and out of our control. The best course of action is to simply react and act in the world with little regard for the future, because the future is too unpredictable.  We are so limited in our abilities to plan, it is a waste of time and we are better off pursuing pleasure seeking, living in the moment, going with the flow.  Direction is a meaningless concept.

Model 3 Chaos Theory of Careers

Control and self-regulation comes from being aware that we are all living on the Edge of Chaos.  This is a place where there is order (and predictability) but there is also disorder (uncertainty).   These two components are ever present, meaning that self-determined action is best achieved through having a repertoire of approaches that help establish a direction but at the same time maintain openness to uncertainty and responsiveness to change.  Like any other skill, this needs continual use and practice.  Too much Model 1 type planning runs the risk that the person will unable or slow to spot when uncertainty has made their plans nonviable or is presenting a better opportunity.  They will also be less able to deal with unexpected change as they are less practiced at considering it and engaging with strategies to cope with it.

Critically, it is not a case of continually swinging between order and disorder, certainty and anarchy. Rather both certainty and uncertainty is considered, held and explored continuously and simultaneously. This is illustrated in the figure below.

Is this model more complex? Yes unashamedly.  Is this model closer to reality? Yes I believe so (and argue extensively for this position in our book, The Chaos Theory of Careers, Robert Pryor & Jim Bright).

From the Model 3 (Chaos Theory of Careers) perspective, the fact that we are limited in our ability to plan, predict and control (and therefore that implies that goal setting is a limited technique) does not automatically mean that everything is chaotic in the vulgar sense of that word. To argue that is to see the world solely in Terms of Type 1 and Type 2 models.  Rather our plans need to be dynamic, truly continually monitored and blend of green band open (e.g. exploration) and red band closed (e.g. goal setting) strategies.

Another concern is that such an approach means abandoning a sense of direction.  Again this is to see the world solely in Terms of Type 1 and Type 2 models. A sense of direction can be achieved (within limits) and the more people are taught and practice skills aroun responsiveness, awareness and reinvention the greater the sense of self-determination they will have.

A final concern I’ll address here, is that Model 3 thinking will create or exacerbate anxiety as it so clearly acknowledges uncertainty.  There are several responses to this.  Firstly, there are many examples in life where we point out sources of uncertainty including: safety demonstrations on flights; fire drills; rockfall/landslip warning signs; cattle on the road warning signs; low battery indicator; low fuel indicator; exhortations to look both ways when crossing the road etc.   For most people most of the time, these actually serve to reduce anxiety because they allow us an opportunity enrich our planning to include the possibility of uncertainty and a range of strategies for dealing with it.

Furthermore, in our own research, we have found in career planning, that exposure to uncertainty actually increases self-efficacy (see McKay, Bright & Pryor, 2005; Davey, Bright, Pryor & Levin, 2005).

Most people don’t get uncertainty and continue to see it in Model 1 terms.  From this perspective anything that challenges that certainty and the planning tools like goal-setting that are imagined to provide it are seen as threats and often assumed to be advocating the anarchy of Model 2 thinking.

Uncertainty, planning and life are more complex than that.  We can do better than that. We can embrace uncertainty in life and careers!.

If you’d like a high quality version of the Edge of Chaos poster, get them here.

 

 

 

Is goal setting past its peak? Some new data.

How long has there been serious interest in goal setting?  You might be forgiven for thinking it has always been a key approach to changing human behavior.  However according to PsycInfo (the largest and most authoritative database on published psychological research), between 1900 and 1980, a search of this data base on the terms “goal setting” yielded only 39 publications.  The first being in Harry Spillman’s chapter Tides of Life in Personality: Studies in Personal Development. New York: Gregg Publishing US.

The 1980s were not much better, in fact they were worse than the average of 0.5 a year, with only 2 publications (both in 1986).

The 1990s were when goal setting really started, well, kicking goals. A whopping 335 publications turned up in the search – more that the previous 90 years combined.

But it was the 2000s when we became totally obsessed with goal setting as the answer to just about everything, a whopping 1168 publications came out about goal setting.

However, something interesting may be happening.  Have a look at the graph below that shows the search results for “goal setting” across all types of publications by year.

It seems that goal setting publications peaked in 2008 and have been in decline ever since.  (Note the figure for 2011 has been adjusted by taking the figure produced at the end of September, dividing it  by 9 to get a monthly figure and multiplying that by 12 to get a comparable annual number – given the dramatic drop off, this probably over-estimates the true figure for 20110.)

There are a few intriguing things here.  Firstly, are we over goal setting?   Regular readers will appreciate that from my theoretical perspective of the Chaos Theory of Careers, goal setting can be seen to be limited in its efficacy, especially for longer-term behavioral change (because complexity and change serve to move or obliterate the goal posts) this is not an unwelcome thing if it turns out to be true.

Secondly, is it the case that goal setting has been in decline since the GFC?  The GFC really hit in mid to late 2008 (see graph below of S&P 500 since 2006).  2008 was the peak year for goal setting papers, and 2009 was not far behind.  However journals and other forms of academic publications and outputs (like theses) tend to reflect work that was done or submitted 2 or 3 years earlier.  So there is likely a lag effect in operation here.  And sure enough if you look at 2009, and 2010 and almost certainly 2011, we see an exponential drop off in papers on goal setting.

So, is it a little like the financial markets, that people are beginning to appreciate that the world is more uncertain and changeable than we realised, and that maybe we need techniques that are not so firmly rooted in the idea that the future (goal) is relatively unchanging and predictable.

It is truly fascinating, and reminds me of the Peak Oil debate, have goals reached their zenith – have we reached a tipping point on goal setting? Is this just a temporary blip? Is goal setting so accepted there is nothing more to say, or is it the case as I am hypothesizing that we are beginning to appreciate goal setting as useful, but an over-simplified response to complex and changing problems?  Or is it simply turbulence in the numbers?

Who knows for sure, but this graph certainly makes interesting reading to me.  I guess we must wait to see how it emerge over time, and on that chaotic and complexity-laden bombshell, I shall leave it to you to ponder!

 

 

Note: Psycinfo is “Unrivaled in its depth of psychological coverage and respected worldwide for its high quality, the database is enriched with literature from an array of disciplines related to psychology such as psychiatry, education, business, medicine, nursing, pharmacology, law, linguistics, and social work” according to Proquest.

Being spokesman for a generation is the worst job I ever had: Gen Y myths dispelled

Redundancy is generally a bad thing but there are plenty of people who should be made redundant without delay: Kim Jong Il of North Korea, and Omar Al Bashir of Sudan spring to mind.  They should be joined by the self-proclaimed spokespersons for a generation.  Especially the Gen Y spokespeople because of the widespread disservice that they have done to the reputation of their own.  It is time for Gen Y to reclaim their own identity and set the record straight.

It is beyond me why anyone would want to develop a career as a generational spokesperson, a job that has a finite shelf life.  The Canadian novelist Douglas Coupland was the spokesperson for Generation X after publication of his novel in 1991. Yet by 2006 Coupland was admitting in his New York Times blog that he was now occupying his time in Vancouver chewing up his own books (literally) while watching Law and Order on television.  This does not bode well for the aspiring generational spokesperson.  A quick search on the internet failed to unearth any current Gen X spokespeople, and only a handful of Baby Boomer spokespeople. Most of those were authors of books about how sex and sciatica can be bedfellows, or how to retire.  By contrast, the Internet is heaving with apparent authorities on the topic of how to talk to 18 to 28 year olds. Qualification for this role? Being aged between 18 and 28.  It also helps if you can claim that you have spoken to someone older aside from saying “I wont go to bed it’s not my bedtime”.

 

Being a successful generational spokesperson falls into the get in quickly, make a quid and then get out category of occupations. Therefore it can be safely grouped together with con-artists, Senators (but I repeat myself), and boy bands.

 

It is time to make these chancers redundant because there is now a lot of good evidence that casts serious doubts on most of the central claims made about the Gen Y generation.  On the off chance that you have managed to avoid to breathless claims made about this generation, and at the risk of perpetuating untruths, the claims are broadly that Gen Y’s (born late 1970s to late 1990s) are: technologically savvy having grown up with it; socially highly inter-connected; impatient for career responsibility, consultation and advancement and quick to quit if their needs are not meet.  It is claimed that these (and other) characteristics differ from previous generations.

 

Late last year the Journal of Managerial Psychology devoted a whole edition to examining these claims for a generation.   The editors open the examination with the statement that “rarely do such generalisations seem to be challenged, or even the basic assumption that there are generational differences questioned…”. The existing evidence they did unearth was hardly promising either.  One study they cite found that Gen Ys and Gen Xs “were identical” in ratings of their top six work motivators as were Baby Boomers and Pre-Boomers.  That study found that steady employment was the top motivator for Gen Ys. In a further four studies cited, all of them found little or no differences, or trivially small differences that were contrary to the generational stereotypes.

 

The special edition of the journal presents a further series of evidence that draws on very often large samples from the USA, Australia New Zealand and Europe.  To sum up the results, the editors, Auckland-based academics and consultants Keith Macky, Dianne Gardner and Stewart Forsyth  conclude that “many of the empirical findings are less strong and consistent than popular sentiment suggests. Indeed, there may be more variation among members within a generation than there is between generations”. (pp860)

 

Perhaps the most relevant study was one conducted by staff at SHL Australia, a company that for many years has specialised in objective assessment in the workplace. Melissa Wong and Leah Coulon from SHL teamed up with Whitney Lang at Deakin University and Ellirona Gardiner at the University of Queensland to examine whether personality and motivational driver differences exist across Baby Boomers, Gen Xs and Gen Ys.  They examined the profiles of 3929 professionals who had completed the SHL Occupational Personality Questionnaire and the Motivation Questionnaire. They did find a couple of differences between the generations but these were not supportive of the popular view of Gen Y. They summarised their results in the following terms: “In practical interpretation terms, these differences are almost negligible. More importantly, even where differences exist (even where there are moderate to large effect sizes), the direction of the differences is often contrary to the differences suggested in popular management literature.” 

 

What other evidence is presented in this special edition?  A similar pattern emerged in a study of 1422 employees across 8 organisations in New Zealand with the authors concluding “The Baby Boomer, Generation X and Generation Y had some differences in work values but fewer than expected”.  Data from 1.4 million Americans over the last 80 years does reveal some small differences in personality when test-taker profiles across the generations are averaged and compared. However the data points to higher levels of narcissism, self-esteem and depression amongst Gen Ys.  However these differences if they exist – the results are not without their critics – are hardly strong support for the common stereotype.

 

In seeking to establish an identity and a place in the world, one strategy is to invent, emphasise or even exaggerate the differences between you or your group – the in-group, and others, the out-group.   It is a strategy that has served advertisers well for decades.  Set up simplistic stereotypes pitched at the target demographic group because it is uneconomic and unrealistic to pitch to individuals. Just pretend that the individual and the stereotype are inter-changeable – “Because you deserve it”.

 

 

Gen Y have been sold short by the industry that has grown up around them. Many Gen Ys that I spoke to resented being reduced to a stereotype and objected to being treated as disloyal flibbety gibbets.  The attempts to translate marketing strategies based upon demographic analysis of customers into an effective model of management and leadership of employees is a questionable practice that is not supported by the available empirical evidence, and may serve only to alienate the very people promoters of such approaches claim respond positively to them.

 

It is a sad truth that those self-appointed spokespersons for Generation Y are too young to have heard of a certain Mr Billy Bragg but they could look him up on their FaceSpace social networking interweb site. If they had heard of him, they could consider this piece of wisdom from the songwriter of 30 odd years: “Being spokesman for a generation is the worst job I ever had”.

The Strange Strength of Vulnerability

The Strange Strength of Vulnerability

Here is a paradox – the strongest systems are those that are most susceptible to change. They are the ones that have a lot of connections.   The more connected a person is, the more sources of support they can draw upon when they are struggling. The more people in a person’s network, the more likely that they can recover rapidly from a career reversal and find something else to do.

Yet, each time we make a connection to another person we must overcome the hurdle of vulnerability.  We are putting ourselves out there for tacit judgement by the person we are attempting to connect to – will they accept us or not?  If fear gets the better of us, rejection can be internalised as confirmation of our own worst fears about our worth.  Or worse, we never get to the rejection, because fear makes us get in first and blocks us even reaching out in the first place.

Le Cyclop - La Tête Maquette 1970

It is tempting (and common) to believe that self-sufficiency is the best way of building strength and resilience.  As Paul Simon wrote “I am a rock, I am an island, and a rock feels no pain and an island never cries”.   However real islands are very vulnerable. If the resources on the island run out, they are dependent upon outside links for their survival, and if the link to the outside world is cut, the result can be catastrophic.
It turns out that the most resilient systems are the most interconnected.  The island connected to land by many bridges, an air service, a tunnel and many ferry services is far more likely to be able to withstand any degradation or removal of one or several of these links.   It is what is called graceful degradation and not catastrophe!

The idea of there being strength in vulnerability is not new, you do not need to go back much further than the Corinthians to appreciate the fundamental and deep seated logic of this idea.  However, just because it is true doesn’t mean we should stop trying to understand the idea and communicate it.

In my previous post I celebrated the work of Brené Brown and her book the Gifts of Imperfection, and it was my reading of this that has caused me to think more deeply about the connection between her ideas and the Chaos Theory of Careers.

One way of approaching the Chaos Theory of Careers is to think about ourselves as systems and that these systems are governed or limited by Attractors.

The first three Attractors describe systems that are closed, that is no new or outside influences can alter behaviour of the system – they have the effect of making people into little islands.   When people become completely focused on a goal the rest of the world is shut out. When people see the world in exclusively black or white terms, all the colours in between are lost. When people stick rigidly to routines or rules, the exceptions and outliers no longer have a home.   The last Attractor – the Strange Attractor – is the signature of Chaos, because it is an Open System.   This means that it allows external connections or influences and these can change, sometimes radically the system, in fact the system is continually changing, only most of the time the change is not very noticeable.

So the Strange Attractor is vulnerable because it allows connections, and those connections serve to change how the system behaves.  However it is this very dynamic, this habit of continually learning, being open and adapting that gives the Strange Attractor its resilience.  If the environment radically changes, the Strange Attractor naturally modifies its behavior too, because it is connected to that environment.   The resilience or strength is a dynamic resilience or strength. It does not act to keep things as they are, rather it acts to keeps thing going, which is why I prefer the term persistence – too keep going, rather than resilience – to bounce back (to the same place).

Making connections to others means letting them into your life and being open to changing.  As Mark Savickas is prone to say, To Live is to Move.  If life is about movement, it is about continual change, and continual change happens only in the Strange Attractor – being an open system. In human terms continually reaching out to others, and allowing yourself to be reached by others.

To see strength as the ability to withstand, to maintain the same, to effectively stop time is an error, because it is not possible in anything other than the very short-term.

Jean Tiguely from Tinguely Musuem

Méta-mécanique Méta-mechanische Skulptur 1955

I prefer to see strength as the ability to be vulnerable and open to change, and so (in the words of my favourite artist Jean Tinguely) to become Static in Movement.  When I hear and read Brené Brown’s ideas about vulnerability and strength, I hear echoes of not only the Corinthians, but also artists like Jean Tinguely and theories like Robert Pryor’s and my Chaos Theory of Careers. When you’ve got the Corinthians, a Texan, a Swiss, an Englishman/Naturalised Australian and a born and bred Australian on the same song sheet it makes for dynamic, sweet, vulnerable, and strong music!

So the key in Counseling is not to encourage clients into yet more goal setting – or at least not until – they have explored and appreciate their Strange Attractor – the complex pattern of stability and change, of Identity and Transformation, of Dividual and Individual.  It is not so much that people need to change, rather it is the understanding that living is change and to live authentically is to accept, embrace, invite and instigate change.