Best career advice I ever got: be like water

Intuit can be a very intense (and rewarding) place to work. We have a strong company culture built on putting the customer at the center of everything we do and the pursuit of excellence proven by measurement. As a new employee, you will either love it and thrive or quit/get invited to leave very quickly. I knew I belonged here the minute I walked in the front door. Even still, long term success here can be elusive. I’ve been lucky enough to not only have some longevity here (seven years and counting), but to have helped usher in change along the way. This week I’ve mulled over what helped me get to the level of success I’ve had so far. Beyond the culture match, there is one piece of advice that stuck with me all these years that has really helped. That advice was to be like water.

Here’s what “be like water” means to me: instead of getting angry (I admit I sometimes do) and retaliatory¬†about obstacles to change , be always thinking about the next avenue to take if the current one doesn’t pan out. Keep coming at the same goal gently, continuously until you achieve it. It’s not a very “western” way to approach change. Most people I know have taken the “fire” approach to change: get angry, try to force acceptance, argue, bully. The truth is, that approach often does work in the short term. I’ve never seen it work longer than a year or two. People figure out a way to respond in kind eventually, which ends all chance of change occurring, because it’s associated with the person who started all the drama.

Being like water means you never give up, never quit trying. It’s also one of the more powerful forces on earth. Fire scorches on a superficial level, but things grow back. On the other hand, over time water breaks down mountains and clears valleys. If long term change is your goal I encourage you to be like water. Go ahead, clear the valley.

The marathon as shrink

Christine and Timmy finish the San Diego MarathonThere’s something about running marathons that helps people focus on what they really want out of life. Seven years ago I ran a marathon after what seemed like training forever with my friend Timmy. The day of the marathon was one of the most emotional and difficult runs of my life. (Whoever tells you if you can run 20 miles you can run 26.2 is exaggerating) But here’s the beautiful part no one tells you about: after getting through the parts that I include under the “lowest lows” heading of my life (where the medic asked me if I was okay and needed to stop at mile 10 and the guy walking his dog who told me I was super-slow), I reached this moment at mile 23ish where the whole world just seemed to crack open to me. I know it sounds crazy but it was a near-religious experience. I felt if I could do this impossible thing, anything in the world was possible. Like there was an opening of myself to the possible.

Up until that day I had been working as a web developer. Which was fine, but really not making the most out of what makes me the best person I can be. Within a year of that marathon I started my job at Intuit which quite literally changed my life. I also met my husband.

I’ve seen two dear friends run marathons in recent months. One of them has already completely transformed her life: career, love life, moving closer to family, the whole thing.

There’s just something about those marathons. If you don’t believe me, try it for yourself.

Psyching out

You know what my big soap box of 2010 appears to be? There is nothing new in the world of the psychology of learning. Just a few days ago I wrote a post about it. Today Ellen Reynolds from Dachis group wrote a post describing Kate Niederhoffer’s presentation about the psychology of teaching people new behaviors. The takeaway: People adopt a new way of doing things (like participating in social media) over time more easily when they are rewarded rather than punished.

If you’ve ever learned about animal training, you already know that’s true: the most effective way to create a new behavior long-term is to ignore undesired behaviors and react immediately and visibly to desired behaviors. From an operant conditioning standpoint, that’s positive reinforcement. Once you establish the new behavior and you want to see it happen more often, you change how often you reward the behavior. So once you’ve got people participating, your start varying the rate at which you reward them. In other words, surprise them with rewards if you want to encourage long-term change. Positive reinforcement changes behaviors and keeps people (and animals) motivated.

And that’s why Kate is so impressive (and rare): science has its place in business. It just takes someone both practical and “on their toes” like her to see it and call it out.

If you want to be brave, get people to do something new

Make natural behaviors happen more frequently …But if you want to be smart, figure out what they do naturally and see if you can get more people to do it, or get people to do it more often.

From an operant conditioning standpoint, it’s a lot easier to train established behaviors to happen on cue, a lot harder to shape an entirely new behavior. How do I know? I used to teach a Marine Mammal Behavior and Training class at SDSU Extended Studies during my many years of working in Education at SeaWorld.

Some of the “easier” training at SeaWorld happens when trainers see the animal doing a behavior they’d like to repeat on cue. They reinforce the behavior immediately, which increases the likelihood of the behavior happening again. (Kind of like kindergarten teachers give “caught you being good” awards)

So there you go: license to be a little lazy/smart: to increase your success rate, focus your marketing efforts on doing something you know happens organically.