Monthly Archives: July 2012

Sprinter or Marathoner?

I love the Olympics, both winter and summer editions.  Although my favorite thing may be the fashion statements of the athletes in the opening ceremonies (sorry, I cannot pretend otherwise; it’s more than a parade), I really like the events that have both sprints and tests of endurance.  Athletes specialize in one or the other, and so do careerists.

In careers, the thing you should never get wrong is mistaking one thing for the other, and not knowing which you are: sprinter or marathoner.  If you know you are good in short haul, but once you have done it and bought the T-shirt, it’s over for you, than don’t sign up for jobs or careers where feedback and reward is consistently long delayed.  If you are a pacer, not a flashy, right out of the gate burst of speed and light, don’t nominate yourself or market yourself as a specialist in change, or turnaround projects.  Your long-haul sensibilities will not tolerate the sacrifice of nuts and bolts for paperclips and paste.

Form is important to athletes and so it is in careers.  Both sprinters and marathoners sign up for pain, but  different kinds of pain, requiring different kinds of training and physical demand.  A career sprinter may have to change jobs more often, learn faster, take more risk, get good at forming relationships quickly, and focus on leveraging specialties directly related to results.  A career marathoner, on the other hand, will be process-focused, may have to push past a bit of boredom to stay on track, keep up the pace and not fall victim to complacency, make more tactical alterations, take less risk and rely on proven training, and trust the slow building of deeper relationships that takes place over time.

Of course, this is an analogy with the usual limits–some of us just run, swim, bike, skate, or ski as fast or steadily as needed under the circumstances.  We all adapt–for a while.  But if your natural inclination is toward bursts of energy, when things are slow you will find yourself creating some kind of opportunity for quick feedback and maybe a little drama.  If your preference is for measured input and  measured output, the sudden call to pick up the pace can make your stomach lurch and your head spin–and can leave you feeling lost.

Don’t make assumptions about what’s required, and don’t seek and then accept an invitation to join the wrong team, or the wrong job on the right team.  Some jobs require balance–you have to be able to perform as needed; these are utility player jobs and they are interesting because they provide variety and a good mix of fast and slow.  I believe that sprinters do better in those jobs, because they can sprint sequentially, which looks and feels (to them) like a pace.

I think most folks think that entrepreneurs are sprinters–all that idea-generating heat and light and passion.  However, the opposite is probably true.  A successful entrepreneur is the one who is able to manage timing and resources through thick and thin, endure serious setback, and stay the course when things are looking grim.  Entrepreneurs look for faint signals to keep them going, but they don’t mistake them for the finish line.

And really, careers don’t have much of a finish line, so the whole analogy has limited range.  Careers don’t come in absolutes, and you can retrain yourself to run the race you face.  However, it always helps to understand discomfort when it shows up, and to know what makes you happiest in a job.  If you wonder why you aren’t getting enough feedback, you may be a sprinter.  If you are wondering why you get so much feedback, and find that it detracts from your focus, you may be a marathoner.

Keep Calm, and Carry On.

Career Choreography

There are only a few good things about summer television:  new episodes of The Closer, and a new season of So You Think You Can Dance.  I admit to being hooked on both, and I further admit that both shows jumped the shark many seasons ago.  I think The Closer is mostly about the writing and the story, which will finally end this year and give way to at least one spinoff.  But  one thing fascinates me about SYTYCD–the Notes that the judges give the dancers.  Apparently, ‘Notes’ are what specific feedback is called in dance world.  And it always appears to me, a Dance Illiterate, that it is absolutely vital to the performer’s performing life.

And I think that is so with all of us.  Feedback is ubiquitous–when we don’t get feedback we plan for, we may randomly interpret whatever feedback shows up.  Even if it isn’t on target.   You have to be really careful with feedback; sometimes it’s just polite commentary masquerading as truth.  Imagine this exchange between Nigel (producer and judge) and a pair of dancers who just completed a Quickstep  (and if you are not a SYTYCD watcher and have no idea who Nigel is, you will have to really imagine) :

Nigel:  “That was good.  I hope you dance that well next time.”

Cat Deeley, on behalf of both dancers who are still out of breath:  “Well, Nigel, good that you didn’t hate it.  Do you have anything to add that might help them next time?”

Nigel:  “Um, not really.  It was a good routine and they looked very good doing it. Quite a lot of talent this year, though, so I hope they do even better.”

I could go on, but you see the point.  The wonderful thing about the Notes is that they are notes, just little specifics, like “Stop kicking your partner,” or “D’ya know you are making weird smiley faces,” or “Your hands and arms are graceful, so use them more.”  (And actually, on this particular show, sometimes the judges cry or scream and get very emotional and detailed about the effect of the performance on them.  While this is indeed important, it is not really as useful to the dancers as you might think.  Crying, etc., though notable, is not Notes.)

To be useful to anyone, feedback (which I am about to begin calling Performance Notes, because I can, and because it is more digestible to a larger audience by that name) must be:

1.  Specific

2. Relate to performance that the recipient can control.  “Well, you had nothing to do with it, but that music was awful and the costume they made you wear was even worse.”

3.  Follow the noted actions as immediately as possible.  “Y’know that waltz you did three weeks ago. . .?”

4.  Individualized.  “This means you.  Not her.”

5.  Presented in relation to a baseline.  “We expect this; you did that.”

6.  Oriented to likely rewards or punishment.  “Keep it up and _____ will happen.”

7.  Positive.  Or at least as positive as possible.  “Your heart and your passion really shone through in that piece.  Now, your feet are another matter. . . let’s see if pointing those toes and standing up a little straighter won’t help that. . . ”

8.  Easily understood and visualized; chartable (chartable, not charitable; like on a graph), if necessary.  “Let’s look at the playback. . .”

Performance Notes (as I am now in the nearly permanent habit of calling incidents of feedback) are really important to a career, so if you are not getting the Notes you need, you might consider giving yourself some Notes.  Specifically, when you are disappointed in your own performance, follow your performance with a personal debriefing session.

  • Were your(written) goals for what you undertook reasonable, and did you meet them?  If you didn’t set them, that may be part of the problem.
  • What (specifically) went well, and why?
  • What would you like to have done better, and what would have teed you up for that?
  • What is your baseline expectation for yourself on your next outing for this category of performance (interview, presentation, network-building event)?
  • How will you reward yourself for improvement?

One of the things that always impresses me about the So You Think You Can Dance judges is that they do communicate that they care, even when they are being very critical.  Caring is crucial to useful Performance Notes.  For me, caring raises the bar; when any performance is regarded as not worthy of Notes, it must not be important.  In my own Quickstep world, even if no one else is paying attention, my performance is important to me.

Ergo, I owe it to myself to deliver Notes, because I care (and I’m usually not too harsh a judge of myself to put up with me).   The question is always:  What was I trying to do and what will I do differently and better, next time?