TED speaker/author Adam "Smiley" Poswolsky had the awareness to see that climbing the career ladder has limits compared to inventing the path. Now he helps others to jump.
WJ: When I interviewed the UN's head of Share the Meal, he said some of us make more of a difference by staying in high-paid jobs, donating money. Do you agree?
ASP: The "quit your job, follow your passion, start your own business" mantra is shortsighted. If everyone was an entrepreneur, who would do the work for those companies? My message is: Invent your own path, whether that's starting a business or working for the UN. Wherever you are, be creative and innovate.
John Leland founded a startup called Myproject.is. He tried to help people use social networks to crowdsource ideas. He had a three-person team and was racking up credit card debt. He realized his business model wasn't working so he took a job at Kickstarter. He's happier now because he has more of an impact than when he was the big man in charge.
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WJ: One of your book's messages is: Don't let your job title limit your hustle. What is hustle?
ASP: When you are starting out, you're going to have a title like "assistant, associate." Whatever. The title is what you applied for on LinkedIn. Define self-worth in a more aspirational way. "I'm passionate about inclusion in the workplace." Then design inclusion, whatever that is.
WJ: So give yourself whatever job title you like on LinkedIn?
ASP: No one's going to pay you to speak until you call yourself a public speaker. If you don't put that on your business card, you can forget it! If you are waiting until TED reaches out, you are going to be waiting forever. Start speaking in front of your friends in your living room.
Seventy percent of Americans are disengaged with their jobs. The lily-pad mindset is in opposition to the career-ladder mindset. You hop on the ladder when you are young. You pick an area and you stick with it until you're 65 and someone gives you a paperweight. Lily pads are spread out in all directions but the roots are connected. It's more experimental. Maybe you were doing a writing project and now you are going to go write for the UN, or you were a farmer and now you're going to work for the World Food Programme.
WJ: There's no ladder from the farm to the UN.
ASP: But there is a lily pad. You say, this is my job, it's what I need to support my family right now, but I can build meaning into aspects of my life. It's knowing the why behind where you are. If you are in finance and hate it but do it because your friends or dad do, that's the problem. Finding meaningful work is a privilege. Many wake up and don't have a choice in what they do. Their immediate thoughts are "I need to put food on the table." But a lot of people make a lot of money: They hate their jobs but they have a choice in what they do and they still don't make that choice.
WJ: If someone feels stuck, what advice would you give them to jump onto the lily pad? I know you don't advocate the "Eat, Pray, Love" approach.
ASP: Start small. "I'm going to move to India and start a business." What's the 10-minute action item that gets you a little closer? Buy a book, set up a coffee date, reach out to someone on LinkedIn, press publish on the blog. Once you gain traction, that helps erase fear.
WJ: You say, "Artists with full-time jobs are still artists."
ASP: I know people who do their best work when their needs are met financially. When they paint or write for three hours a week they are just in the zone. If they have seven days a week they end up on Facebook all day.
WJ: How do you exercise awareness of what is enough and what is excess?
ASP: The first awareness piece is something we don't do as a culture: take time and space for self-reflection. In the next five minutes I can get a car, lunch, a date. I want that instant thing. But who am I? Why am I here? What do I care about? That takes time and vulnerability. Seventy percent of Americans don't take time to reflect. Then there's awareness of what you've defined as your metrics for success.
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WJ: What are your metrics?
ASP: For me, it was to write an amazing book I believe in, get it out there, reach as many people as possible, and know it's affecting people. When I get emails from readers telling me that it is, then it's me saying, "This is enough." That's healthier than saying, "I need to sell this many books because this person did."
People who are on the cover of Fast Company want to be on the cover of The New York Times. You can operate from a place of knowing what is enough for you and not what is enough for Tim Ferriss.
WJ: How do you veto things from your to-do list? Do you ever go on a choice diet?
ASP: When I was writing, I would say no to almost everything. I knew that if I said yes, I would never write the damn book. Now I'm entering a phase of saying yes. Define whether you are in an open or closed space. People who are unemployed or looking for a job, if someone says, "come on Friday," say yes. When you are creating in hustle mode, be more discerning.
WJ: How have the principles of your book affected your relationships? Have you found love?
ASP: I haven't carved out the time to fall in love or date. I meet someone and say, "I can hang out again in six weeks." I'm going to take the next few months to invest in my self-care and dating life. I'm 33 and very much looking to find a partner, someone who shares this dream of creating this mindset shift in how the world works.
WJ: In your book you also said, "Pay attention when your purpose changes." How do you notice purpose changing?
ASP: For me there was a deep physical sensation when I was in my government job that it wasn't the right place. I had trouble sleeping. I got shingles, which is stress-related. That's a sign. I have these light bulb moments where I notice purpose is changing because I'm getting excited when I listen to a TED talk, hear a podcast, or read a book and something bubbles inside. That's a light bulb going off. We all have these signs but we usually ignore them.
WJ: You advocate career experimentation and then noticing how the experiment makes you feel. Can you do that with relationships also?
ASP: Rapid prototype your career. Try on jobs, projects, and experiences quickly instead of saying, "I am going to stay here for two years." In every relationship there's learning a sense of who you are, what you care about. It's not just the end goal: the salary, getting married, having kids, or checking the status box on Facebook. It's about noticing what you learn. Keep a journal.
WJ: One of your book's recommendations is to create a breakthrough advisory team.
ASP: It's important to be honest with people about what it entails: I want to connect for 30 minutes every six months to learn from what you did. I notice that you write for this publication. Would you be willing to talk to me about your path?
WJ: You recommend asking yourself what makes you weird. Why?
ASP: Your inner weirdo wants to wear spandex and go to ecstatic dance or sing in the shower. That gets to the crux of who you are. If you're authentic, you are going to be more confident, more self-aware, more attractive to potential employers. I didn't go by Smiley in government. I'm not going to make my biggest impact on the world if I'm not Smiley. Smiley's my identity. So whatever that is for you, find out how it can show up more every day.
WJ: You stress the importance of side projects. Is that being on two lily pads at once?
ASP: Some people like aspects of a full-time job, but starting a side project is what leads to their next thing: a blog, an art project, helping a friend. These influence the next lily pad. Maybe you put on an event like Silicon Valley fashion week. That might lead into fashion or event planning.
WJ: There's a guy in your book called Bernat. His advice is to "make something cool every day." Do you make something cool every day?
ASP: I created a list of career coaches on my website because I get hit up a lot and I don't offer coaching. Providing resources is like making stuff. Bernat says, "You want to be a designer? Design stuff every day; put it on Instagram. That's how people discover you. Don't wait for someone to tell you you are good. You're an artist when you make art."
WJ: If you could give the 25-year-olds of the world one piece of advice for the future, (other than to wear sunscreen) what would it be?
ASP: Invest in your community and relationships. The things that have changed my life the most have come from being in a room with people. The people who are going to solve the problems facing our generation are going to do so because they spend their time, money, and energy collaborating. So get in the room, whatever you have to do. Go to conferences, meetup groups.
The people who change the world invest in their community.