Managing Oneself

Peter Drucker is arguably the most influential thinker on management. One of his best-known works is the 18,000-word book ‘Managing Oneself‘ published in 2008 from a 1999 Harvard Business Review article. The article now be found in HBRs ’10 must Reads: The Essentials’, the collection of the 10 most important articles published in their 100-year history. The book’s core idea is that you need to cultivate a deep self-awareness to achieve ‘true and lasting excellence.

Drucker presents a series of questions you can answer about yourself to gain the self-awareness needed to ‘build a life of excellence:

  1. What are my strengths?
  2. How do I work?
  3. How do I learn?
  4. What are my values?
  5. Where do I belong?
  6. What can I contribute?

The most difficult of these questions is the first. With over 180 cognitive biases that affect our ability to process reality, such as confirmation bias where we look for evidence that justified our existing beliefs, how do you truly know what your strengths are? Drucker’s recommended method is feedback analysis; each time you make a key decision write down the outcome you expect and then return in a couple of months and compare the actual results with your expectations. By assessing patterns using this method you will be able to assess your strengths from where you can create desired outcomes. You can then spend time improving these strengths as the most effective route to high performance. Creating a series of feedback analyses can take two to three years for meaningful patterns to emerge, so what can we do immediately while collecting these experiments?

Success in the knowledge economy comes to those who know themselves-their strengths, their values, and how they best perform.

Peter Drucker

How do I perform?

My current focus is on the second and third questions of Drucker’s questions. A set of sub-questions are presented to help us get to:

  • In what ways do I work best?
  • Do I process information most effectively by reading it, or by hearing others discuss it?
  • Do I accomplish the most by working with other people, or working alone?
  • Do I perform best while making decisions, or while advising others on key matters? 
  • Do I perform best when things get stressful, or in highly predictable environments?

By answering these questions you can start to understand what kinds of productivity techniques and tools might suit you best. I know for instance that I can consume and process information through listening. I am often able to recall things I have heard better than those I have read, although this means I often have to avoid listening to things like the radio when I am driving home from work and processing the day’s information and decisions. I have set up techniques to support this including preferring listening to audiobooks over reading them or listening to the week’s economist rather than reading the paper version.  

An interesting point though is how much of overall performance is improved by foundational skills and how much is open to preference and styles? Time blocking for example, where blocks of time, usually in 30-60 minute intervals are allocated to specific tasks, is widely seen as the best method to organise a day. Many methods of note-taking from GTD to Zettelkasten, and the ‘Building a Second Brain’ method all base themselves on the premise that the brain is built to process information rather than store it. Which of these ideas are universal for improved performance that forms the starting point for developing exceptional ability?

How do I learn?

I did not enjoy school nor did I develop any good learning habits or achieve anything exceptional academically. I did however get obsessive with other pursuits such as music production, where I did much better. Drucker suggests that people that excel at learning through writing tend to do poorly at school as most classes are not set up to exploid this approach. One of the reasons I set up this blog is I have a google drive full of documents I have used to organise my thoughts and when learning something new, I usually reach for a pen to organise the idea in my own way. Drucker suggests that there are multiple ways to learn including readers, listeners, talkers, and writers and says that most of us know how we learn best but rarely act on this, and so do not reach high performance. 

As a teacher, I know there are definitely foundational skills and techniques that everyone can benefit from using more. Encoding, spaced repetition and active recall are all seen as highly effective methods of rote learning. Kolb’s cycle presents four stages of experiencial learning; planning, doing, reflecting, and learning but perhaps the most effective way we do each of these stages can vary from person to person and within different contexts. Bloom’s two sigma problem suggests that 1:1 and very small group tutoring produces results two standard deviations better than other methods and John Hattie’s invisible learning presents a meta-analysis of the meaningful research on teaching methods.

 My actions for gaining self-awareness for excellent performance

With my MBA graduation over and the immediate actions complete for my new job, it is time for me to refocus on my performance. I am working on a number of methods to improve my understanding of my strengths but what can I do to improve my ways of working and learning? 

First, I need to work on my foundation skills and update my productivity and learning systems. Then, I need to build on these foundations with more advanced personalised methods that fit the way I work and learn best. Finally, I need to use these two sets of skills on a daily basis. 

Some resources I am using:

The road to El Dorado; the mountains and disposition

When asked why they are studying for a degree, most students answer that they want a good job, lots of money, financial security or something similar. When questioned further students usually have a deeper purpose, usually around making the world a better place through a job that reflects their interests; solving climate change, curing cancer, making people happy through music, looking after animals etc. Quite often, deciding what and where to study comes down to a mixture of these two things.

There are two ways to think about studying, the first is learning to do, and the second is learning to learn. Learning to do, commonly called ‘training’ provides skills to use the current technologies to complete set tasks. These skills are essential in getting a job and adding value quickly to the employer. However, learning to learn is the ability to think critically and adapt to new technologies and emerging problems. These skills are much more critical longer-term and in adding value to society over a career.

The mountains and disposition

My Introduction to Economics Professor at university, Amos Witztum, told a story on my first day of class. He compared the journey we were starting on, studying for a degree, to the search for El Dorado, the fabled city of gold. He said that you needed to learn how to walk and then train to walk long distances to prepare yourself. 

This training will help you be strong enough for the journey, but if you start climbing and all you know is to walk, you will not get very far. You need to raise your head and look around, and you need to learn how to navigate and route find. When you get to the top of the first mountain and see the next, much bigger, mountain, you need the strength to keep going. Learning to learn will help you find the city of gold at the end of the adventure. 

Discipline and motivation are dependent on your own expectations.

Amos Witztum

He ended with some advice. He said that you might be standing atop a mountain, scanning the horizon, along the way in your search for gold and see some new and undiscovered treasure. In your search for an assumed goal, you may find something more extraordinary and change your path. Keep your head up and don’t get too focused on the destination that you miss out on the treasure along the journey.

Have a big audacious goal but if on the journey you discover some other riches, seize the day. More importantly, in the absence of your own dream, don’t be worried about picking one that others see as worthy, and work on improving your ability to think and learn, and be ready to pivot when you discover your own path to greatness.

You can watch a version of the speech given by Professor Witztum on Youtube. It is a later year, so it is not exactly the talk that inspired me but worth fifty-three minutes and twenty-six minutes for the knowledge and wisdom. 

Economics is not a science, it is a language, and without it, you can’t be a part of the conversation.

Amos Witztum