If you manage your time terribly, you’ll get more done

Red Alarm in the black bin. 3D rendering
Red Alarm in the black bin. 3D rendering

by Brooke Allen

I’m terrible at doing what people tell me I should do, but I still get things done. I’m not sure why this is, but here is my best guess:

I manage my desires more than my time.

In high school, I never seemed to find time to do homework I didn’t want to do. It got so bad that in 1969 my high school calculus teacher, Mr. Foster, told me that if I did one single homework assignment, he’d base my grade on my tests—meaning I’d get an A. But if I continued to do absolutely no homework, he’d base my grade on the homework and give me a zero.

So I decided that if I was going to do only one homework, I would make it suitable for hanging in a gallery. I spent a big chunk of my savings to buy a mathematical font attachment for my parents’ IBM Selectric and I typeset my answers. In my dad’s sculpture studio I was able to use fixative to emboss my answer sheet and mount it on a wooden backing that I carved by hand. Mr. Foster was so thrilled that he wore my homework around his neck the entire day. Other teachers saw it and they all demanded one homework from me, too. Damn!

To this day, before doing something I don’t want to do, I try to transform it into something I’m eager to do. For more on this I refer you to that great 20th century philosopher, Mary Poppins, who said, “In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun. You find the fun, and—SNAP—the job’s a game!”

Don’t do hard boring useless things

My friend, Ken Caldeira, runs a very productive lab at Stanford. He once told me that many academics get bogged down with really hard esoteric problems nobody cares about, even the researchers themselves. He told me he only wants projects that are fun, impactful, and easy.

If someone is paying you to do hard boring useless things then you need to have a conversation with your boss. If you are a student going into debt to have people give you hard boring useless assignments then perhaps you’d be better off dropping out.

You don’t need to finish what you start

Recently, a successful businessman told me that a few years ago he was diagnosed mid-life with ADHD. This helped explain why his personal and business life was such a mess; he was always starting things but he never finished them, and that would drive everyone around him nuts. Continue reading “If you manage your time terribly, you’ll get more done”

The secret to a higher salary is to ask for nothing at all

i want more, 3D rendering, rough street sign collection

by Brooke Allen 

More than twenty years ago, I developed a powerful approach to negotiating that goes beyond “win-win.” It involves starting by offering the most and asking for the least. It works extremely well, but I was unable to explain why until I read Wharton professor Adam Grant’s excellent new book Give and Take.

Adam identifies three types of people: Takers try to get as much as possible from others, matchers seek an even trade, and givers contribute without expectation of return.

Previously, I’d thought of things more in terms of debt and honor.

My parents raised me to believe that borrowing and then not returning is the moral equivalent of stealing. Put in the language of giving and taking, borrowing is a form of taking where I get what I want now and put my honor at risk in the future. Repaying my debt later only elevates me to the status of matcher, but not giver.

Eventually, I came to see that getting paid a salary in advance of delivering value is a form of debt. In 1992, I accepted a job that came with a bonus guarantee. Almost immediately, the unit I worked for was disbanded and they paid both the guarantee and a severance. It was the first time in my career that I was paid more than I delivered, and I felt I was left with a debt I could never repay. That is when I changed how I negotiate contracts.

The typical approach is for both sides to demand something unreasonable—but not let on that they consider it unreasonable—and then negotiate a “compromise” in the hopes that you will end up closer to your side than the midpoint. Even when the final agreement is declared a “win-win,” this approach backfires because it begins with acts of unreasonableness, selfishness, and distrust.

The next time I had to negotiate a contract, it began in typical fashion with a prospective employer sending me a lopsided agreement and asking me to counter-propose. I said I was incompetent to do that and suggested they write a new contract as if they were me, putting in everything that would be in my best interests, and then taking out everything they would never agree to. Since that would be the best I could get, I would accept it subject to agreement on compensation.

We started with base pay. I wrote down the least I would work for and asked them to write down the most they would offer a perfect person, irrespective of whether I was that person or not. If when we exchanged papers, their number wasn’t higher than mine then we could stop there and save time. Their number was twice the best base pay I had ever received in past jobs, and my request was for $0. I explained that my goal is to live a debt-free life, and therefore I wanted to give value before receiving compensation. Continue reading “The secret to a higher salary is to ask for nothing at all”

To get a job, write your story instead of a resume

woman-writing-in-diary-1055085by Brooke Allen 

I am 61 years old and I have been doing paid work since I was 16. I’ve been a grocery clerk, camp counselor, film projectionist, sound man, light man, cameraman, freight loader, computer programmer, teacher, operations research analyst, manager, salesman, writer, consultant, and for the last 30 years I’ve been a securities trader and hedge fund manager.

Yet I have only once gotten work by answering an ad. Even then I was turned down at first, but it led to a different job six months later after I established a relationship with the hiring manager who had first said no. And I’ve never been asked for a resume until after I received an offer, and then only because HR always needs something to put in their files. I haven’t needed a resume to get work because my resume doesn’t reveal my work. I am my work, and to know my work you need to know me.

Here are some things I’ve discovered about finding worthwhile work that have helped me, and that might help you.

Lead a thoughtful life

The secret of a well-written cover letter is to learn to write well. The secret of an interesting resume is to have done interesting things. So do interesting things and learn to write about them. Ben Franklin said, “Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.” You might do one or the other but it is better to do both; that’s what Franklin did.

Learn to think. Reading On Writing Well by William Zinsser is a good place to start. He says, “Writing is thinking on paper.” In order to think deep mathematical thoughts you must write formulas, and similarly you cannot think deeply about much else without writing words. Learn to think mathematically because otherwise you cannot say you know how to think any more than you can say you can drive a car but can’t turn left. Likewise, saying you can think without knowing how to write is like saying you can’t turn right. If you live long enough and you only go straight ahead, then eventually you’ll drive off a cliff.

Get your story straight

Resumes are your life in bullet-point form. The story of your life is more interesting than can possibly be expressed with a list of sentence fragments. Skip the resume and write the story.

Good stories also have a beginning, a middle, and an end. In your case, you are in the middle. Continue reading “To get a job, write your story instead of a resume”

How to find a calling instead of a career

Young nun in religious conceptby Brooke Allen 

In my Quartz piece, To get a job, write your story instead of a resume, I talked about the value of finding a purpose in your work, and suggested that in order to do that you reflect on your life and write your own narrative. I talked about how economics is about the scarce resource, and in this age of abundant goods, services, and knowledge the scarce thing is a reason to do what we do, a purpose.

You don’t want a job, or a career; you want a calling

That story was about how to get a job, but you don’t want a job. You don’t even want a career. What you want is a calling. This point is made eloquently in Aaron Hurst’s book The Purpose Economy that is coming out April 2.

The people who say they only do their jobs to pay the bills are the people who are working without a purpose—and they are the ones you want to hire last and fire first. People who say they want a career are often worse. They don’t care about doing the job; they care about how the job will advance their career. I don’t like to hire people who want careers; I want people who want to do the job.

But the people who say, “I cannot believe they are paying me to do this” are the ones who I want to hire first, pay the most to, and hold on to for dear life. These are the people with a calling who would do what they do anyway regardless of who is paying them and how much.

Previously, I talked about how to get a job. Now let’s talk about how to get rich bringing work and workers together with a purpose.

First of all, what role are you going to play in the market? An employer might do a better job of hiring, but the market for their innovation is limited to just them. A job seeker might do a better job finding work, but once they land a job they will do that job and not try to monetize their approach.

Innovation comes from the intermediaries

If sellers or buyers in the stock market find a better way of investing then it is in their best interests to keep it secret. But if brokers find a better way it is in their best interests to sell it to everyone. That is why, for better or worse, the brokers do all the financial innovation in the securities markets. Continue reading “How to find a calling instead of a career”

Don’t come to Wall Street for the money, even if you plan on giving it away.

Wall street

by Brooke Allen 

I am a 60-year-old child of the 60’s who never gave up on the idea that I can save the world—even after three decades on Wall Street.

That is why I enjoyed the piece in QZ.com by William MacAskill, To save the world, don’t get a job at a charity; go work on Wall Street.

The problem is that this is more easily said than done. Most people working on Wall Street can make ends meet while a small few can make vastly more money than they need. The trick is to make sure that the process of making money does no harm.

Question: How much money would all the participants in the mortgage securitization industry have to give to charity to undo the harm they have caused?

Answer: More than they have ever made.

The real opportunity to do good on Wall Street is to reform it from within. But to do the right thing you have to be able to recognize the difference between right and wrong, and then you must be able to say “no” when ordered to do the wrong thing.

Here is my advice if you want to come to Wall Street and do good:

  • Have a strong moral compass and a thick skin. Practiced righteousness about what other people should do isn’t the same as being in the right. You’ll need to recognize when you’re ordered to do the wrong thing, and you’ll need to not do it. Time spent not facing these issues does not prepare you for the time when you will have to.
  • Be independently wealthy when you arrive. Doing the right thing might require you quit your job (or lose it) and perhaps never work in the industry again. You might be different from everyone else, but I doubt it. If you are still paying off a student loan (or a mortgage, or your kid’s college bills, or saving for retirement) then you will find a way to rationalize bad behavior rather than refuse to do it.
  • If you have the moral compass but lack the funds, then whatever you do, live very modestly and save the difference rather than give it to charity. That money might come in handy some day when doing the right thing requires you to quit and go the regulators and the press. If you make it into old age with a pile of dough and a clear conscience then you can give it to charity—or better yet, get creative and be charitable with your time and money doing things other charity mongers haven’t thought of yet.
  • Make sure you have an awesome in-demand skill and be the kind of “resource” people jockeying for resources will fight over. People will put up with you being good if you are good at something they need desperately.

I wrote a piece for my Physics major son and his cohorts that was published by Science magazine called, What Not to Do With Your Physics Education. My advice is that they not join me on Wall Street because, as I conclude the article, “It’s not that I feel they would not succeed; many will make lots of money. It’s more like how I would feel about sending a poorly equipped son to a dubious war where many generals are in it not for the cause but for the spoils.”

I notice a certain naïveté among some academics, non-profiteers, and people who lack hard skills. They believe that all they have to do is lower their standards just a tiny bit in order to be in high demand on Wall Street and make tons of money. Then they imagine they can make up for it by supporting good causes.

Good luck with that.

First publishedin QZ.com on February 28, 2013.

Why business schools charge so much and pay their teachers so little

College diploma with rip-off seal

by Brooke Allen

You and I know why business schools charge so much for an MBA.

Because they can.

But why do they pay so little to everyone except their superstars?

It’s not just because they can. I think the real reason is much more sinister than that.

Once upon a time—before starting my MBA at NYU in the early 1980s—I thought that there was something wrong with extracting the most from someone while giving the least in return. That was back before my first finance professor said, “The sole objective of the professional manager is to maximize the net present value of the wealth of the owners.”

I had an ethics class where the explicit message was, “Crime doesn’t pay.” But the implicit message was, “It isn’t a crime if it is merely immoral and not strictly against the law.”

At no time during my MBA did I learn how to make a product—any product. But that was OK. I was already a pretty good programmer and I didn’t need NYU to teach me how to make things. However, I was only a part-time student and freelanced full time to pay for school. I needed to learn how to get clients. Continue reading “Why business schools charge so much and pay their teachers so little”

The Problem with Talking About Intellectual Virtues

Thinker at Columbia University

By: Brooke Allen

This piece is a response to Colleges Should Teach Intellectual Virtues by Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe.

The problem with talking about Intellectual Virtues is that it can give intellectuals the feeling they are virtuous when they are just talking.

Colleges might not think of themselves as being in the business of teaching virtues (like honesty, integrity, courage, fairness, wisdom, and love of the truth) but the fact is they can reinforce or squash good instincts. For example, a student I know wrote a college admissions essay that began with a graphic description of the earth under attack by aliens when he, as super-hero, arrived to save the day. His essay concluded by saying he wanted to go to college to save the world.

Three years into college I introduced the student to the Heroic Imagination Project (www.HeroicImagination.org). Its founder, Dr. Phillip Zimbardo, wrote to the student asking how they might work together to change the world. The student wrote to me, “I’d rather not change the course of history than risk changing it for the worse.” I cannot tell you how imagined courage become timidity but I can tell you when and where it happened.

Question: How can the people at colleges do a better job teaching courage? Continue reading “The Problem with Talking About Intellectual Virtues”