Sunday, March 27, 2016

Giving, Taking, and Being Successful

Giving, Taking, and Being Successful

I’ve been making good use of my commute time recently, catching up on reading, and in particular, the stack of physical books on non-fiction topics that are somewhat relevant to my work. I was making good progress, only to have new, interesting stuff cross my path. One Sunday morning in December I caught part of an interview with Adam Grant on On Being. I wasn’t familiar with Adam Grant before this, but I’m extremely glad that I caught the show. I soon got a copy of Give and Take by Adam Grant, and I read his next book Originals shortly after it came out. In the spirt of giving, and of the serendipity that led me to learn about Adam Grant, I’ll also mention some of the other books Give and Take brought to mind.

I read Give and Take by Adam Grant as last year ended. This is was a great book to end one year and start another with, as it got me thinking about the value of generosity, not just to others, but also to your self.

Grant explains how givers (as opposed to takers and matchers) get ahead in the long run and also help their teams succeed. Teams which have people who have a positive attitude towards helping others in small ways often do better in the end, and in the long run the helpers are more successful too. This goes contrary to the idea that the way that you make progress is to focus on what you need to do. The reality is that for most complex knowledge work, you can’t do it all yourself. As Austin Kleon’s Steal Like an Artist says, the best creativity is inspired by the work of others. Helping others both enables the larger unit to make forward progress, as well as making it easier for you to get help with your work when you need it.

The idea of people who make the team better, even when their short term contributions don’t seem as significant brings to mind "Catalysts" as mentioned by Tom Demarco in Peopleware.( Slack, another book by Demarco, also came to mind because of it’s discussion of the willingness of volunteers to contribute to efforts). This book also brought to mind another recent book, Invisibles, which discusses the “invisible” people who make things happen, and who are happy to be out of the spotlight. I don’t know if I can say that all invisibles are givers but I would not be surprised if that were true.

Giving can have limits. Many people struggle with how to balance the idea that being helpful and generous is good, while not overcommitting themselves. Grant explains how to be a giver and not overextend yourself. Likewise, givers often have a hard time taking care of themselves by leveraging their tendencies to advocate for others. Both approaches involve an an “otherish-strategy,” which is one of the more interesting (of many interesting) concepts in the book.

To those familiar with Jerry Weinberg, this will seem related to the Airplane Mask metaphor in Secrets of Consulting. Grant gives a more detailed model of how to think it through. Weinberg’s metaphor is still good to keep in in front of mind though.

This book resonated with me on many levels. There are lessons here that will help me in my roles an agile software developer, manager, member or my town community, and member of my UU church community. The information here resonates with, and explains, many things I've learned from Gerald Weinberg, about technical leadership (as in the book Becoming a Technical Leader, and Gil Broza about the agile mindset, and many other useful things I've read about how to be an effective team member.

This book will help you to understand why that's true, how you can be a more effective giver, and how to encourage others to give, so that you can be part of a more effective team or community. As Adam Grant says, we need more givers.

update March 28, 2016: Fixed reference to the correct Tom DeMarco book. I mentioned Slack. I meant Peopleware.

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Sunday, February 7, 2016

How Mindsets can Help or Hinder Learning (Book Review)

It was inevitable that I would read Mindset. Having recently read two books Give and Take by Adam Grant, and How Children Succeed by Paul Tough) which referenced this book, and having heard mention of it in other contexts as well. As promised on the cover, Mindset provides advice that you can apply whether you are a manager, worker, parent, teacher, or some combination. Carol Dweck does a great job of explaining an idea with a lot of research behind it in a popular book, without glossing over too many points. There were a few places where I thought the book dragged a bit, but those sections were brief and far between, and on net it was a quick enjoyable read.

The point of Mindset is that people have one or two mindsets: fixed mindset which is premised on the idea that you abilities and qualities are carved in stone, and the growth mindset which is based on the belief that your basic qualities are cultivated through effort. The 2 mindsets in Dweck’s model provide a powerful framework for understanding how people approach challenges. Those who approach situations with a fixed mindset are likely to see failure as a reflection of their value. Those with a growth mindset are more likely to see a set back as an opportunity to learn and improve.

People can have different mindsets in different aspects of their lives (work, relationships, artistic, technical). Dweck also explains that mindsets are “just beliefs” so you can change them if you want. Mindsets are not just a way people are. From the names you can guess that the growth mindset is the one that can lead you to better things. The most interesting parts of the book for me were the discussions about you can develop (in your self) and nurture (in others) a growth mindset.

While the fixed mindset v growth mindset concept seems simplistic at first glance, it is seems extremely powerful. While reading I found myself thinking “so maybe that is why I do that…” or “maybe I should consider the mindset model when dealing with a colleague.” Since the book wraps up with a focus on education, it led me to consider my approach to encouraging an motivating my (as I write this) third grader .

Since mindsets are not innate, one might ask why anyone would stay in a fixed mindset. The discusson of why that happens lie the most interesting lessons for self-improvement. Your mindset can be re-enforced early in life, and like all things that connect back to childhood experiences, the messages you get early in life are hard to get past, even if they are slowing you down. Dweck shares both data and anecdotes of how various mentors tried to help students ended up moving from a fixed to a growth mindset, with various degrees of success. That all of the stories are not “fairy tale” success stories grounds the concepts in reality. All change is hard, and not everyone can success absolutely. But you can benefit from trying.

Dweck discusses the application of mindsets in many realms, including business, relationships, and education. The book ends with an explanation of a program for elementary schools to help develop growth mindsets, which is appropriate given the focus of Dweck’s research and the value of improving mindset early on. The area that is most interesting to me professionally is how the mindset model relates to leadership approaches.

We often think of leaders in terms of raw ‘talent’ … and that “effort” is for those who don’t have talent. In reality it takes both effort and talent to be continually successful. Dweck explains that more often than not great leaders are the people who were constantly trying to improve, and who don’t have all the right answers starting out. What leads to success is willingness to make a effort to improve. Raw talent helps, to be sure, but it can’t sustain success.

One thing that the book didn’t address for me, though perhaps the answer is obvious, is the question of sustainability. If a growth mindset is good, and is all about meeting challenges, would a growth mindset lead to you overextend your self? Is what we might call “knowing your limits” a manifestation of a fixed mindset? I suspect that the answer is no. There’s a difference between having a perspective that obstacles can be overcome, and having the energy or bandwidth to meet all challenges head on.

There are number of lessons I felt that I could apply immediately to understanding my personal life, helping my (as I write this) third grader, and understanding how to work with teams and people at work. Mindset can inspire you to meet challenges with more confidence, and help you to better understand your interactions with others.

Books mentioned in this article: