Do Less. Create More.
Updated: Jun 8, 2019
“The secret to doing good research is always to be a little underemployed. You waste years by not being able to waste hours.”
- Amos Tversky
It is easy for me to summarize my professional background. I can use titles or tag lines: Director of Finance, Director of Global Growth, or "from Fortune 100 to employee #40." These abridgments allow an audience to quickly place me in the context of their own lives, and have allowed me a sense of significance. But what if we're recognized in ways meaningful to other people but not ourselves? What if we shortcut our originality? What if we're on the fast track to the wrong destination? These questions, and the anxiety that came with them, have prompted two major pivots in my work, and life.
My first pivot was when I left a very comfortable job in San Francisco and moved to Argentina. Other than Spanish, empañadas, and Malbec, I did not know what I was headed towards. What I did know was the growing anxiety I felt staying in San Francisco. Moving to Argentina was one of the best decisions I have made and ironically enough, it was from there, not Silicon Valley, that I found my first job at a startup.
For years I was empowered by the live-to-work mentality common at high-growth, early-stage, VC-backed companies. I was entrusted with incredible opportunities. Opportunities I did not feel qualified for but worked endlessly to own. I grew and learned so much. But then the anxiety—call it intuition, a gut feeling, or burn out—returned and propelled another pivot into the unknown.
A month and half ago I left my job and became more than "a little underemployed."
I was planning on writing my first blog post shortly thereafter. "Keep it raw and relevant," I kept telling myself. But when I wrote, I wrote in reaction not reflection. My scattered thoughts, like tabs opened and abandoned on a browser, brought me no closer to answering the constant question, "So what are you doing now?"
The truth is, I have no idea.
These days I spend a lot of my time reading, writing, and trying to be better to my body. I work out and cook more. I run errands and do chores. I live a slower-paced, domestic lifestyle that just two years ago I judged and scorned. I judge less now. I have realized that moving fast does not always mean moving forward. That I want my passions to define my work, not the other way around.
I read a blog where the author laid out an unemployment timeline (finances permitting). I wish I could find the post to share with you. My recollection:
Month 1: Wake up every day and do whatever you feel like.
Month 2: Reflect on how you spent your time in month 1. Observe what you are organically drawn to.
Month 3: Find a job that complements your innate interests.
Month 1 surfaced a handful of interrelated interests: behavioral economics, cognitive neuroscience, the role of technology in education and healthcare, and the coping strategies people employ with technology. Conveniently enough (read: confirmation bias in full force), a lot of what I have read and listened to has validated my decision not to rush into another job just yet.
For instance, I recently listened to an episode of The Knowledge Project podcast where Shane Parrish interviews Barbara Oakley, PhD, author, and co-instructor of the MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) Learning How to Learn. Barbara speaks about two learning modes. How both "focused thinking" and "diffuse thinking" are essential to effective learning, the latter especially important for creative thinking. In the past few years, I have built up significant diffuse thinking debt. I have been so focused on excelling in a world of acceleration. More projects. More meetings. More growth. More responsibilities. More deadlines. More growth. I didn't stop. Now for the first time in a long time (maybe since my childhood days of directing bespoke Hanson musicals), my right hemisphere is leading the charge.
I also got around to listening to a TED Talk my grandmother sent me. She is 88 years old and as inquisitive as ever. You could say it runs in my blood. The TED Talk was by Kai-Fu Lee, an AI expert (among many other impressive designations). Mr. Lee says, "Really the creative jobs are the ones that are protected because AI can optimize but not create." He identifies creativity and compassion as human differentiators that will enable us to work alongside machines. So while computers can do a lot more, they create a lot less. And while I feel lately like I am doing a lot less, I am creating a lot more.
Whether weak, brave, indifferent, or simply privileged, I know what I need now is time and space. Time to prioritize reflection and creativity. Space to conceive and connect ideas. In Thank You for Being Late (another recommendation from my grandmother), Thomas Friedman quotes Dov Seidman, “When you press the pause button on a machine, it stops. But when you press the pause button on human beings, they start.”
So what am I doing now? I'm just getting started.
The Minds of Many
It's an incredible feeling to connect and converse with a stranger through their words and your thoughts. For more from magnificent minds:
The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis
The Knowledge Project podcast with Shane Parrish
Learning How to Learn MOOC co-taught by Barbara Oakley and Terrence Sejnowski
Link to "How AI can save our humanity" TED Talk by Kai-Fu Lee
Thank You for Being Late by Thomas L. Friedman
Link to "The Advantage Of Being A Little Underemployed" Blog by Morgan Housel