Learn the norm and then push the boundaries

Some time ago I mentioned if we all were the same, the world would be a boring place. This remains a favorite saying of mine. In relation to work, there always are “in” jobs and professions, or the new better way to do your job. In reality, there are many ways to do the same job. Certain tasks may have specific steps, but otherwise, creativity and differences reign.

No matter your business or where you work, it is your individuality that makes you stand out to others. It also is your creativity and the ability to think outside of the box. Do you do that, or is the same old same old? It’s hard to come up with or do something new or different. Ideas that seem so obvious weren’t to most of us. If you are an entrepreneur, whether in a startup or any other type of business, what makes you and your business stand out?

Colleges should teach creativity along with entrepreneurship, business, etc. Tapping into other parts of the brain is important and can be life altering. It is good to think outside of the box and differently than others in your space. Of course, in all businesses and professions, you need to learn the ropes and rules before trying to push any boundaries.

Doing what others have done is safe and where learning begins. We need people to do many jobs that are decidedly not hip or “in”. In fact, being safe or working as others have or in an unhip job may make you a success. Once you have learned the basics, being creative, unique and different has the possibility to make you a trailblazer or visionary in your field.

It’s up to you to determine whether you are okay with the status quo or not. It sure seems more interesting to blaze your own trail within whatever path you choose.

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In our scattered multitasking world focus still matters. Our brains aren’t built to do multiple things at once, at least not well. This is a problem when we have tasks or projects requiring focus and attention.

You probably have tools or processes you use to try and focus. This may include closing your office door, putting your phone on do not disturb, or doing the work at a time or day (think early or on the weekend) when interruption is less likely. I find it easier to have uninterrupted time earlier or later in the day and I’m not the only one.

I saw a quote from Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, where he said about beginning his day earlier than most “I do that because I can control the morning better than the evening and through the day. Things happen through the day that kind of blow you off course. The morning is yours. Or should I say, the early morning is yours.” I agree and have spent many early mornings working on matters requiring me to focus. Do you have a time of day? There is something to be said for doing important work when it’s less likely you will allow yourself to be dragged off track by email, calls, or something else.

This is important because it’s much easier to do high quality work when you can focus. If you think about recent tasks or projects you worked on, and are honest with yourself, you know whether you did your best work or not. People don’t pay me to provide legal services at a middling level. Clients expect I’m giving them my best always. I try, but know I fall short at times. We all do. But by thinking about how and when I work best and can focus, I have a better chance to hit the mark.

I encourage you to take the time to think about the setting, time of day, and other factors allowing you to focus and do your best work. Doing so is an investment in yourself, and what’s more important than that?

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Listen fully and then question respectfully

We live in a world of entrenched people and positions. Right now you may be thinking of politics and similar high level issues, but I am not. I’m considering this on a day-to-day level in relation to your work and personal lives in how you deal with people on any topic. For me it’s about my clients and who I have to dal with on their behalf.

I certainly deal with entrenched people and positions professionally dealing with opposing parties and attorneys who have positions directly conflicting with my client’s positions. I dread conversations where an opposing attorney is going to try change my mind through their words. Their positions come from the narrative they have been told by their client, many times contradicting the contracts, emails and texts underlying the matters at issue. Of course, when they speak with their clients they receive positive feedback on their apparent understanding of the their client’s narrative, thoughts and ideas, but their job is to listen, analyze and question. Accepting what someone tells you as the truth comes with great risk when their voice is not the only source of information. This moves no needle, changes nothing, and actually can be detrimental to the result ultimately achieved for their client.

I can’t give you any ideas on how to help change this in a large way, but I have some ideas on what you can do in your world to start moving the needle. This speaks to how to get along with the people you work with, live with, and deal with on a daily or regular basis, including, for me, those pesky opposing attorneys. It could be about which shop has the best coffee, the best route to get where you’re going, or, in my world, how to interpret a law or contract provision.

The most important thought I have is to think and act independently and constructively. Don’t get sucked into groupthink without analyzing the situation or issue yourself, even if you trust the person pushing a certain idea. I always say I trust what my clients tell me unless and until I review materials that make me question their version of the “facts.”

Even really smart people aren’t right 100% of the time. You can reality test ideas respectfully and constructively with questions, but you also have to listen to the answers. Again, this could be about a discussion with a co-worker on whether to hire a new employee or whether to switch IT vendors, or me questioning why my client’s position and a contract term don’t match.

Groupthink is the killer of innovation and ideas. When everyone piles on about how great an idea is without respectfully questioning it, opportunities are missed. If you jump on the bandwagon with your superiors, let alone friends and family, it may be at the price of your identity or personality. You may advance your career or a personal relationship by always being a yes person or team player, but notice the people who achieve professional success or seem to have healthy personal relationships can respectfully question or disagree with another’s thought or idea. Done in this manner it can result in better ideas and results, and serve as opportunities for learning and growth. It has helped me be a better advocate for my clients, set reasonable expectations, and achieve better results for them.

By asking the hard questions and not just agreeing with others you won’t end up being buddies with everyone. You will earn peoples respect as a thinker and as someone who doesn’t jump on the bus without thinking through ideas and issues. Up your game by thinking and acting constructively. It will make your corner of the world that much better of a place.

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Deliver outstanding advice

Delivering outstanding advice to your client or customer is what you should strive for. My firm has defined its culture and “Deliver outstanding legal advice” is fundamental #1 of the JW Way – http://www.jaburgwilk.com/mission-statement. Without this, nothing else we do matters because this is central to why clients hire us. The same is true of your clients or customers no matter the nature of your business.

To achieve the goal of delivering outstanding legal advice, I have to strive to meet the challenges of the other fundamentals set forth in the JW Way. The list is long, but without clarifying and managing client expectations (JW Way # 3), listening fully (JW Way # 5), walking in my clients’ shoes (JW Way # 4), demonstrating respect you (JW Way # 11), and otherwise following the fundamentals, it challenges my ability to deliver outstanding legal advice. You get the idea.

Delivering outstanding legal advice is what I want to be remembered for by my clients. When a client remembers me for this, it means I did my best to support and honor them, their circumstances, and their thoughts in relation to their issues. Isn’t this what you want of your clients and customers?

Sometimes it means I have to tell a client I’m not sure of the best course of action and want to think about it. Sometimes the best advice involves taking a moment to think through the options and their consequences before making a recommendation. It’s the analyzation of issues and client concerns, as well as caring about the recommendation I’ll make, that makes the difference between going through the motions and truly delivering what I believe to be outstanding advice and service.

Other times it means explaining to my client why their legal position isn’t good. In those instances I have to leave my ego at the door (JW Way # 9) and communicate to be understood (JW Way # 10), among others. This is another moment it’s good to think about what I’m going to say and how I’m going to communicate the message I want to convey. Taking a few minutes to prepare can go a long way in making a difficult conversation more productive and comfortable.

Clients and customers come to me and to you to make recommendations and direct them, whether it is legal advice or for a retail item sold where you work. In every interaction strive to be honest, direct, and clear. Your clients or customers will thank you and will be much more likely to tell others about the outstanding advice they received, as well as the outstanding experience even where, in my case, they may have been on the wrong side of the legal issues.

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Do the right thing, always

I recently heard someone on a podcast say part of why he thinks his children have grown up to be good young adults included ingraining in them the idea of “doing the right thing, even if it sucks.” Many times doing the right this is easy (and some people still choose doing the wrong thing). Other times it’s hard.

An example of the way this comes into my world is when a calendaring or similar mistake is made and may negatively affect the client. I haven’t had this happen in a long time, but when it has happened it may have been my error, or an error by another attorney on my team, or my assistant. In those situations I have the opportunity to lay or take the blame. Human nature is to blame others, but it’s wrong. In these situations, I am the outward facing client contact and leading the team. I always take the blame even if I know it was someone else’s fault. My clients look to me so to do otherwise would look like passing the buck, and likely have a negative effect on that attorney client relationship.

After hearing the gentleman on the podcast say “do the right thing, even if it sucks,” I thought about how to impart this pearl of wisdom to my children. The opportunity to do so was right in front of me. My youngest had summer homework to finish before school started a few weeks later. My wife and I even had him make a to do list for the coming days so he could finish it all with time to spare. So imagine my (non-existent) surprise when I found him playing video games or streaming shows on Netflix every morning. In that case the doing right is for him is to do his homework before the activities he finds fun, which can be hours long blackholes. And, like all of us growing up, he thinks homework sucks.

The point is this saying applies to issues large and small. As you go through your day, see how many times it fits a given situation. I have discovered it works at home, at the office, and otherwise. Plus, doing the right thing is something good to be known for, even more so when not doing so is easy, and no one else will know. But you will know and that would suck.

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Follow your dream?

Dreams are great. They can sustain us through hard times or hard work. They can lift us up and let us down. We can learn from them no matter whether they are realized.

Have you followed any dreams in your life? Most dreams die. When this happens to you, what is your reaction? Does it drag you down or paralyze you? If so, you need to rethink how to look at failure; you just need to find another dream.

I know I’m making it sound so easy. For you it may or may not be. But if you don’t try you won’t like where you find yourself. Many times it’s not giving up on the dream, but tweaking it because of what you’ve learned and what negative things have happened. It’s like the story of most successful entrepreneurs, many of who suffered through many failures before the dream that made it big.

Clichés are clichés for a reason; they’re true. In this case the appropriate cliché is “you learn more from failure than success.” I think this is true for many reasons. This includes people generally investigate, dwell on, and think through failure more than success. Even though continued success can be dependent on thinking through success and how to maintain or tweak it, people tend to do less of this.

Always analyze your successes and failures. It will help you keep the dream going, retool the dream, or change to a new course, all of which are good paths to be on.

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Make mistakes and move on

We all make mistakes. Regularly. Do you think about what happened and try to learn from them, or do you beat yourself up? Or does it depend on the mistake and what and who it affected? Next time you make a mistake, take a step back and think how you prevent such a mistake from happening again.

The cycle of beating yourself up does no good. It wastes time, which is a precious commodity. It also can be a vicious cycle dragging you down and affecting all aspects of your professional and personal lives. This will compound your issues and likely result in more mistakes being made. If you beat yourself up and continue thought processes of how dumb your were, etc., it will be a self-fulfilling prophecy. And others will view you from a similar lens, which only will further bring you down.

Instead, get up, dust yourself off, and get back in the game. This doesn’t mean to simply move forward and ignore what happened. It means to think about in an effort to not have something similar happen again, but not to dwell on it and drag down your own self-image. Always take responsibility for your mistakes, but do so constructively and with an eye for moving forward.

Learn from your mistakes, but don’t define yourself by them, or others will too.

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I mean this in two ways. First, read news and know what’s going on in the world. Second, read books. Doing both is important in all facets of life.

As for news, read whatever you like, such as the Wall Street Journal, the New Your Times, the Washington Post or other papers. Better yet, read or skim two, preferably with different takes, such as being left or right leaning. Reading different points of view allow you to process issues, ideas and positions. It also will help you craft your own point of view own coming from a well-read place because you’ve educated yourself on issues. You can create the time to do this by calendaring time with your morning coffee or for a mid-morning break. Knowing what is happening locally, nationally, and globally is part of being a citizen of all, and therefore of the world.

Reading books matters too. Reading the types of books you enjoy matters more. I rotate between fiction and non-fiction, and, with the non-fiction books, I rotate between biographies and business related books. I usually use my time reading books as an escape from work and thoughts piled up from my day, but sometimes I hear about a business book I find intriguing and am willing to read something likely to make me think. You should read whatever motivates you to read. It’s not a contest to read the classics, or more business books than someone else you know. It’s your time, so choose what you read based on your interests.

The best part of doing this is taking time for yourself, but it has other benefits. It will help you be generalist on the current news and other topics you read about. It also will allow you to be a specialists in specific areas in which you have real interest. Both combine to make you more interesting to speak with at a networking event or in conversation with friends and family. You will be able to have a conversation with anyone, which will provide you with opportunities.

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Work Smarter

Efficiency and organization are important. We all work hard, but, if you’re going to put in the effort and time, are you reaching your goals? This could be the calls you planned to make in a given day, or tasks or projects on your to do list, assuming you use one – it’s one way to try to be efficient and organized. Many ideas exist to help with this and most are right in front of us, but can be easily missed.

For example, are you a morning person or a night owl? Either way, do you schedule your days to take advantage of when you have energy and alertness, or do you slog through your day based on other’s schedules or because of perceived “normal” work hours? Fighting this makes no sense, when most people can work remotely from anywhere at any time of day or night. Sometimes you may have to show up at an hour of the day not optimal to your internal clock, but scheduling work when you are more likely to be in the zone just makes sense.

Another area we all can work on is organization. It doesn’t matter if you hand-write a to do list, calendar items, use tasks in Outlook, or an app meant to help with organization. You have to find what works for you and it may not be the first thing you try, or even the second. Whatever you try, make it as simple as possible because your system shouldn’t be so time consuming it actually is inefficient unless you find no other way to stay organized or on task.

I encourage you to speak with others on how they work. It’s kind of like diets these day in that everyone seems to have their own way of doing things. Something someone you know is doing may be your answer to efficiency and organization. Or maybe part of what they’re doing can work in the system you already have, but make it a little better.

Between trying new things and being honest with yourself about how you work best is the opportunity to improve your efficiency and organization. Done right, it can free up more time. Then you have to decide whether to work more or take some well earned time for yourself. It sure seems like a good problem to have.

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Follow your bliss

Do you have a passion? I specifically am talking to a passion outside of your work. Maybe you like to play golf, or paint, or play an instrument alone or with others. If you don’t, can you pinpoint where you lost yourself into work or the interests or control of others? Feeling good about your work is important, as is enjoying what you do, because it takes up a lot of your time. Your passions outside of work provide texture to your life.

I’m an attorney who prides himself on doing the best I can for my clients to manage their risks with their given issues. That is one way to define me. On the other hand, those who know me will tell you I am passionate about music and live music, travel, and hiking. Sometimes when I am partaking in these activities, I specifically trying to take a break from my work and thinking about it. Other times, my passions and my work intersect.

I try to decide and control where the intersection is, but there is no way to fully control this. I may dictate a rough take of a blog post into my phone while hiking, or attend live music with co-workers, clients or other attorneys. In those instances, I may be looking for an opportunity to speak with a certain person outside the confines of my office or the business day, or have to be open to business and law being a topic of conversation raised by someone else. Other times I just want to lose myself in the music.

If you don’t have activities in which you find bliss, I encourage you to take time to consider this and try to find something. You can work hard and support your career while still taking time to do things you enjoy. If you disagree, this is a mental block. I am not telling you to take a month off to find yourself (unless you can afford to take that time and need to find yourself). I can hike for 45 minutes or an hour and get the break I need. Other times it may involve a longer vacation or leaving work early to meet up with people for food and drink before a concert. The time you choose to invest in yourself is up to you, but it’s an important investment.

If you have passions, but find yourself not taking or making time for them, put them on your calendar. Like most things, writing things down makes it more likely they will happen, or at least you will try. There are days where we don’t have the hour to give because of work and life related commitments, but most days you can find the time if you try. Are you willing to do so?

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Negative people have a problem for every solution

The title is a quote from Einstein, and it’s true. In addition to thinking it’s better to approach matters from a positive perspective, I think he is getting at being open to ideas. When someone has an idea, some people jump on the bandwagon too fast and others pick the idea apart until nothing is left. Neither of these actions or reactions is helpful. Instead, new ideas should be approached with an equal amount of positive skepticism and thoughts on how to make the idea a success.

By positive skepticism, I mean you bring negative thoughts in a constructive manner to try to work through what you see as issues. The possible results are you can or can’t work through the issues, which may or may not put the idea to rest. There is another possible result, which is the idea is tweaked based on constructive dialogue and these changes can be small to large, but the idea or its original spirit remains viable.

Each of us has the ability to control whether we approach an idea in a positive or negative manner. Sometimes how we approach an idea has nothing to do with the idea itself. Our approach may be based on the messenger, how the idea was communicated, or some other issue that shades our consideration of the idea.

After many of my own failures in providing constructive feedback over time, I feel I am usually able to discern whether my initial thoughts on an idea are how I honestly feel or because of some other external factor. This is a work in progress, and is an example of why thinking before speaking is important. When I have an immediately negative internal response to an idea, I try to determine why and whether how I feel is based on the idea or something else. The point is being first to respond doesn’t win you an award, so thinking through a new idea provides the opportunity for a more thoughtful and honest response.

Don’t be the person with a problem for every solution. Be thoughtful and constructive. This can mean leaving your ego to the side and supporting the success of others. It also can be the difference of you receiving thoughtful and constructive feedback next time you put yourself out there to others with a new idea.

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