Book Review: “Conscious Business” by Fred Kofman

In his book “Conscious Business: How to Build Value through Values,” Fred Kofman takes readers through an inward journey to find the way to a fulfilling personal and professional life. Kofman, a philosopher and VP at LinkedIn, borrows concepts from ancient traditions, Eastern cultures and world religions, all of which make reading the book an enlightening experience.

Kofman challenges the myth that success leads to happiness. Happiness is the means not the end, argues Kofman: “People find happiness by how they live their lives, not by some goal they pursue.” While success and wealth are our culture’s attributes of happiness, these will not make us happy.

Kofman holds workshops where he asks participants to think of people they admire. He then asks them what characteristics they admire in these people. The answers that people give include “courage,” “humility,” “persistence” and “commitment to excellence.” These are all process attributes, values related to how someone leads their life not what someone achieves.

Kofman says that no one has ever said they admire their characters because of their success, job title or net worth. For example, we admire Olympic gold medalists not necessarily because they won, but rather because of the determination, commitment and attitude they display through their actions.

One of my favourite concepts in the book is that of “unconditional responsibility.” This means that in any circumstance, we must ask how we have contributed to the situation and what we can do to make it better. Responsibility is actually “response-ability” – our ability to respond to a situation.

Kofman’s idea of “response-ability” echoes Victor Frankl’s concept of the last human freedom, which states that a person can always choose their attitude in any situation. We can always be proactive and adopt the mentality of the player. But many people adopt the mentality of the victim, which is a very counterproductive way to live and work.

Below are the seven values of conscious people that Kofman says will lead to a fullfilling life:

Unconditional Responsibility

Essential integrity

Ontological Humility

Authentic Communication

Constructive Negotiation

Impeccable Coordination

Emotional Mastery

Aim for Excellence

There is an epidemic at work. It is called employee (dis)engagement. I’ve lost count of how many young professionals share with me that they don’t like their jobs. If you are on this boat, I wish I could tell you something that gives you hope, tell you that it gets better. But  I’m afraid I can’t. I cannot teach what I don’t know, and I don’t know the secret to enjoying your job.

What I will do is make a call to every individual worker out there: “Please. Let’s work together to make work more enjoyable.”  We are all people and organizations are made up of people.

We spend a lot of time at work. So let’s make it count. Enough putting a mask when we walk into the office each morning. Enough whispering and gossiping (this just makes things worse). Let’s compete fiercely. But let’s do so against ourselves. Be the best “you” you can be.

Work will be meaningful when we take charge of our own individual situation – whether we are the CEO or a frontline worker.

Every moment, aim for excellence.

This will have a great ripple effect. Smiles will be genuine (not hopeful pretence). Employees will think highly of each other (not try to undermine them). The world will feel the impact: People everywhere fulfilling their calling, reaching their highest potential.

Outside-Inside

The news on January 15, 2009 were unbelievable. I recall watching passengers of US Airways Flight 1549 lined up on the wings of the plane in ankle-deep water, and thinking, “I hope this pilot is flying the next plane I am on” and also, “How did he do that?”

Temperance, confidence and strong decision-making skills helped Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger land a 150,000-pound plane on the Hudson River saving the lives of all 155 people on board. The story of the “Miracle on the Hudson” was recently made into the movie “Sully.” However what I find most inspiring about Captain Sullenberger is his determination to be the best pilot he can be and his love for flying, which is documented in his autobiographical “Highest Duty”.

There is a scene in the TLC documentary “Brace for Impact” (roughly at 23:30) where Captain Sullenberger is flying over the Hudson River and recounting how he landed the plane in one piece. Having “Situational Awareness” – i.e. a pilot’s ability “to create and maintain a very accurate real-time mental model of reality” – was key to his flawless execution of that emergency landing.

As the plane got closer to the water, Captain Sullenberger only kept two things on his mind: 1) the reality outside the plane and 2) the reality inside the cockpit. He kept repeating to himself “outside-inside, outside-inside” in order to have an accurate understanding of the situation. By balancing the reality in the cockpit and the reality outside the plane, Captain Sullenberger was able to keep the right speed, tilt and perfectly leveled wings.

Focusing on the plane’s descend while monitoring the plane’s speed helped Captain Sullenberger remain in control of the situation. “You either manage the situation or the situation manages you.” This was key to landing the plane safely.

The concept of Situational Awareness can also be applied to our own lives. Let’s say your boss is critical of a report you wrote. Instead of reacting defensively because you feel attacked, take a moment to analyze the entirety of the situation. What is the external reality (i.e. what are the facts)? Your boss did not like the report your wrote. Now looking inside yourself, how do you feel in this moment? You probably feel under appreciated (you worked hard the last couple of days to finish the report). You may even feel you are a bad worker (“I’ve been in this job for three years and I can’t even write a simple report”).

Instead of responding by saying something like, “Well, I didn’t have all the information I needed to write the report,” you can take stock of both realities (internal and external) and respond to the situation more productively. You could respond with, “I am sorry that my report did not meet your expectations. I also want you to know that I worked hard to write this report. What suggestions do you have so that I can improve the report?”

In the same way that a pilot can successfully land a commercial plane on a river, so can we remain in control of a situation and respond effectively to the challenges we face. Sometimes we let our emotions or our assumptions influence our decision making instead of relying on an objective view of reality to make the right landing.

How to focus at work

Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal NewportEver wonder after a busy day at work if you actually accomplished something meaningful and valuable on that day?

In his latest book, Cal Newport argues that it is becoming increasingly difficult for knowledge workers to make meaningful contributions at work.  He says that there are two types of work: shallow work and deep work. Shallow work includes a lot of the things that take our time at work: multitasking, responding to email instantaneously, running from meeting to meeting, etc. Deep work on the other hand includes tasks such as forming a new business strategy, writing an important proposal or preparing a presentation on a key project.

Deep work requires a state of distraction-free concentration in order to be able to produce high-quality deliverables. However, as you know, focusing at work can be difficult when there are so many distractions vying for our attention (e.g. influx of emails, chat or text messages, Internet surfing, social media, etc.).

Since I finished reading “Deep Work” two weeks ago, I have been applying some of the strategies suggested in the book. The impact on my productivity has been significant. Just to give an example, I was able to complete an important proposal that was approved very quickly and I also completed a monthly report in half the time it used to take me before.

Being productive not only feels great but also helps you stand out in your career. Below I share a simple strategy to help you practice deep work on a daily basis.

1. Prepare

Deep work requires lots of mental energy. It is thus important to cultivate a ritual that transitions you from shallow work to deep work. For example, you could put up a “do not disturb” sign or restrict email and Internet temporarily (even better, assign specific times throughout the day to check and respond to email).

2. Clarify

Be specific about the goal you want to achieve. Having a clear picture of what success will look like at the end of your deep work session will help you sustain your focus. For example, for the proposal that I mention above, my goal was “to prepare a clear yet appealing case that addressed my manager’s feedback from my first draft.”

3. Stretch

Take your goal from the previous step and identify the next logical chunk of distraction-free work (1-3 hours). In this step you should slow down and advance deliberately. This chunk of work should include enough difficulty that you get stuck. This is important because a challenging task helps extract the most out of your current abilities and ensures that your abilities continue to improve.

4. Measure

Because you can’t manage what you don’t measure, it is important to track the number of hours you spend on deep work each day. You will be surprised by how little time you naturally spend doing this type of work. I’ve started writing on my calendar how many hours I spend each day in a state of deep work. Not surprisingly, the days I spend more time working free of distractions are the days I accomplish more meaningful work that adds value to our company.

The Blessings of Having Nothing to Do

When there is nothing to do is the perfect time to give thanks for what we have.

Whenever I have nothing to do, I always try to quickly find something with which to fill my time. For example,  when I am standing in line at store, I am unable to stay still and I grab my phone to check my email, read the news or go on social media. This is because I am not comfortable being alone with my thoughts.

Recently I have been fighting my addiction to my phone while trying to make better use of my time. I for example no longer take my phone with me when I go get coffee or when I go to a meeting. Easy access to my phone can lead to anti-social behaviours rather than use the time to talk to someone new, for example. I am also assigning specific times that I check my phone or go on social media, activities that Cal Newport calls “shallow activities” in his book Deep Work.

Our heads are filled with thoughts running through our brains. Thus, a few minutes with nothing to do is the perfect time to pause and think about everything we have. For instance give thanks for your good health, your family and your job. Instead of filling our minds with thoughts about our next job, an upcoming project or vacation, fill your mind with gratitude and be thankful for all your blessings.

We should take time every day to align ourselves vertically. To be grounded is to be connected with the Creator of the universe. Taking a few seconds each day to put our lives into perspective helps us be grounded and go about our days more effectively. This allows you to give importance to things that are truly important.

In order to make the most out of our waking hours, I suggest you stop competing with time. Instead “slow down and move deliberately”. A lot has been written recently about mindfulness and living life on a moment by moment basis. A children’s book on mindfulness says, “True happiness comes from bringing all your attention to whatever you are doing right now… Mind-full = when your mind is full of the present.”

Millennials This Millennials That

At a conference I was attending recently, someone at my table said with a baffling look, “I really don’t know how companies these days will be able to effectively target the millennial consumer.” Go on social media and you will see tweets and posts about millennials everywhere (I just read a tweet about millennials’ using watches as a status symbol). Countless articles talk about millennials in the workplace, how to raise millennial children, millennials and technology, and on and on and on.

Young people are different than older people, yes. But the difference is not as marked as it is portrayed in the countless conversations and articles that take place on social media and in meeting rooms everywhere.

This HBR article states that, opposite to most literature on millennials in the workplace, millennials and older workers actually have the same career aspirations. “The small differences that do appear are likely attributable to factors such as stage of life more than generational membership.”

Instead of trying to figure out “millennials”, companies should treat their customers and employees as humans first (and only), whether they are young, old or middle aged. I am sure companies would do better by focusing less on generational differences and more on who their stakeholders are right here right now, whether they are 17 or 62.

Personal Evolution

“If one day I feel transformed and decide to change directions, I will change course without prejudice because evolution comes about through change.”

La Mari, lead singer of Spanish group Chambao.

La Mari, lead singer of Spanish group Chambao.

Taking a strong and unapologetic stand when change is needed is not only courageous; it is vital to personal and organizational success. Change is scary. But it’s even scarier to stay the same when the “same old same old” has proven to be futile.

Here are four insights from a great song (Chambao’s “Dibujo en el aire” — a drawing in the air):

1. Stand by what you believe in: If you feel enlightened by a belief or an idea, stand firmly behind it and don’t doubt. Trusting yourself is the only way to overcome fear of change. In this song, Chambao’s lead singer, La Mari, has decided to stop living in fear. She knows that in order to change, step one is making a decision.

2. Don’t be ashamed of change: Stubbornness is a shell used by people who don’t want to admit defeat. Many organizations also fail to see warning signs and change course (e.g. Blockbuster, Kodak, BlackBerry etc.). If there is something you need to change in your life or business, don’t punish yourself for not realizing it earlier. Be empathetic with yourself. After all, change is the only constant in life.

3. Have a subjective/objective view of yourself: How do you view yourself? How do others view you? Asking these two questions can help you have greater insight about yourself and your business. We ignore important aspects that need change in our lives mainly because of unawareness. Looking at our life/business through objective and subjective lenses can help us identify what needs to change.

4. Begin with the end in mind: In this song, La Mari feels transformed before she actually goes through the process of changing. It is important to visualize the change you want to see in your life, your business and even the world. Not only does this help you plan and strategize, but it can also motivate you to achieve your goals.