Monday, December 23, 2013

5 invaluable lessons that I learned in 2013

It's December. We are at the final pages of 2013. When I look back at the end of year, it always feels like everything happened so fast. A year goes much faster than a lazy Sunday afternoon. Some moments make you feel like you have too much time on your hand. In reality, time marches on whether you are spending them wisely or not.

One thing that I realized over time is looking back and learning from them is really important. When you are heads down in the trenches and working on details, it is too easy to lose track of what you are doing well, and what you are not doing so well.

Especially this year, I made many mistakes (or I should say I realized I was making many mistakes). Some were expensive mistakes both in terms of my career and in terms of becoming a better person. I'm sure all these mistakes set me back a few years of trust that I built up, and I know I will have to work harder to earn them back. I want to make sure I write these lessons down so that I am fighting the right battles. Fighting hard is important, but whether you are fighting the right battle is much much more important.

I want to share with my future self and others around the web the lessons that I learned from my mistakes of 2013. Hopefully I become wiser by remembering them. Maybe some of you can learn to avoid my mistakes. Or at least feel better that you are not alone in making them.

Lesson 1: Tell others what you'll do, do it, tell others what you have done.

If tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, it is just as good as not happened at all. I didn't realize the importance of communication. I struggled to share things. Maybe it had to do with my introverted personality. Maybe it came from my Korean upbringing where I believed that greatness of a man comes from working quietly whether someone notices you or not. I didn't know why exactly (and I still don't). But I didn't like talking about what I was doing.

This keeping things to yourself went beyond not seeking recognition. Often I would not say things even when someone brought up a topic that I was working on. I thought "hey, I'm working on that secretly, and soon I'll surprise all of you with great work that I did undercover." I felt smug that no one had an idea as great as mine, and no one else had all the background to solve the problem that I was going to solve it myself soon.

When I finally came up with something, I would tell a few, not all. Only deserving few could hear of my great work. The rest who I thought weren't as smart as me, I did not bother explaining what I did. I thought it was waste of my time and energy to sit down and trying to raise the group average.

What a total mistake that was.

My logic was wrong at so many levels, and it took me a very long time to untangle the entire clusterf*ck. I'm still recovering from this disease, and I have a long way to go. But I know enough to realize that this was hopelessly wrong way to go about things.

First, no idea is any good if no one else understands it. If all I was interested in was intellectual masturbation of making me feeling smug, then yes, I'd been doing a good job at it. But I was not interested in creating something just for myself. If all I wanted was something that suited me, I could have done that all day long sitting at my desk. It's called daydreaming. Instead, what I wanted to do was create something useful. Something that people could appreciate. And there is no way to do that without telling people about it.

There is one more very important thing. I realized that surprise is not a good word in world of business. No one, I mean NO ONE, likes surprises. When things go bad, everyone wants to know as early as they can, so that they can prepare for the bad news. When things go well, everyone wants to know as early as they can, so that they know how to repeat the success and continue investing on things that are working well. This is especially true with management team. They must know what's going to take off, and what is going to fail as early as they can so that they can plan things accordingly: take a closer look at failing projects, identify root cause, reallocate resources to more successful one, etc.

Yet there I was. Hoarding information and refusing to share them. From organization's perspective, I was information black hole. Taking everything in, yet refusing to share them. What a dumb idea.

Whatever you do, communicate. Tell people about your idea, do the things that you told them, and tell them about what you did. Communicate among peers, communicate out to customers, and communicate up to managements. If things happened that no one knew about, it is as good as them not happening at all.

Don't be an information black hole.

Lesson 2: Don't imitate something that you don't feel right about.

I am good at imitating. Thanks to my insecure self as a young kid and emigrant life as a high schooler, I learned to quickly imitate others and blend in when I needed to. It was a survival skill that I learned over time. I became a good observer and mimic people around me to gain acceptance and approval.

As much as this skill can be an asset, I learned that it could be detrimental to becoming my own self, someone that I can be proud of at the end of each day.

Whenever I was thrown in a new situation I looked for models around me to get me started quickly. Often it was my peers and my boss. I looked for things that I could pick up and imitate, and would carry them out without thinking about what that meant for creating my own self. I became an extension of my manager's interactions with me. I would do things because it would be expected and acceptable within the organization without really thinking about whether I agreed with them or not. I was turning into a robot that was doing things to fit in, and get approval even deep inside I did not want to perpetuate certain set of behaviors.

That was a wrong way to go about it.

At the end of the day, when I laid down on my bed and thinking about how my day went, it did not sit well at all how I behaved. Even when everyone around me accepts me, ultimately I must be able to accept myself for what I did. If I don't feel right about what I did, I should stop.

Be yourself. Use your own moral compass. No one is going to be there to comfort you when you are at your death bed not happy with whom you have became. If things don't feel right to you, stop.

How you influence people around you, how you make them feel, you are going to be remembered by those things, not so much by how much approval you received. If you are not happy with how you make coworkers and customers feel, change it. In the end, you are responsible for your own action.

Don't forget that even your greatest role models have flaws. Be selective what you learn from people around you.

Lesson 3: Follow up relentlessly.

I remember running into a friend of a friend on church parking lot. We were not that close, and did not hang out too often. But that Sunday morning, I don't know what got into me, I made a suggestion.

"We should get together for lunch or something."

I think it must have been the recent pregnancy of his wife, and I was talking to him about how my wife was also pregnant with our first child. I did not know anything better to say since we were on hi-bye type of relationship for a while, and thought it would be a nice gesture to suggest something. That was the best line that I could come up with at that time.

"Well, I don't think we can. My wife is having bad morning sickness."

When I made a suggestion, I was not really thinking about following it up. I was thinking that making a lunch suggestion would be a good way to end a conversation. It was not so awkward way of saying good bye. But he thought differently. He took my word at face value, and replied that he won't be able to.

At the end of this short interaction, I felt embarrassed. It made me realize that I was saying things that I couldn't really keep.

Trust is built on top of following up. If I said I was going to follow up, I have to follow up. Even if it was a hallway conversation or chitchats that we had by the water cooler, I must do what I say, and say what I will do.

People will come to trust you, and reward you with more important responsibility. Responsibility does not fall on your lap one day. You have to warn it by building trust.

Lesson 4: Be helpful to people.

Everyone is looking for friends who can help them. First be a helpful friend to those who are looking for one. Finding them is easy. Just look at your ever growing inbox. Whenever I miss an email that was directed to me, and not respond, I am missing the chance to be helpful to someone who are looking for an answer.

If people ask you for something, be the first to respond. You never know when you will need to ask help from them. Help them do things that they are supposed to do. Help them do their job better. If you help others, your team will do better. You'll have a tighter teamwork, and in the end you'll help create a winning team.

Lesson 5: Don't overwork.

This is a tricky one, because it took me a long time to realize. Working hard is not the same as working overtime.

Sometimes you need to put in 14 hour day, but don't let that be a norm, and don't let it become your routine. Quite simply you cannot afford to. I could not live on 4 hour sleep day in and day out. Maybe some of you can. But not me. Find a healthy balance that you can maintain. A good rule of thumb for me is feeling okay at the end of my day when I help my wife put kids to bed at night. Part of it is being around my family after dinner to spend a few minutes with them before they go to bed.

When I chronically overwork, things fall apart. First my body starts saying "uh-oh, you need more sleep and downtime." Then I see myself constantly looking for stronger cup of coffee into late afternoon. All the caffeine messes up sleep schedule, I end up losing sleep, and the bad cycle continues. While my body deteriorates, I become crankier. I start snapping on coworkers and customers (and even to my boss!).

No one likes to be around cranky people. Don't become one.

Give yourself enough time to recover. Be a smiling helper, not a cranky overworked cynic.

I plan to remember these lessons for a long long time for I paid a great price to learn them. Hopefully my blog will be around to remind me along the way.

What lessons have you learned this year? I would love to hear yours so that I may learn from them.

Happy holidays, and best wishes to everyone.