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Stuck in a Job You Hate?

December 2, 2013 — 3 Comments


Illustration Credit: Alyana Cazalet

Don’t let fear of failure constrict your career.

While there’s a lot to be grateful for this Thanksgiving, new figures from Gallup’s 2013 State of the American Workplace Report suggest having a personally rewarding job isn’t one of them. Just 30 percent of employees say they’re engaged and inspired at work, while over half (52 percent) admit to checking in physically, but out mentally. Even worse, the remaining 18 percent are infecting others with their unhappiness. When you consider the average adult spends over 90,000 hours of his or her life at work, job dissatisfaction becomes a problem of epic proportions.

One hurdle to looking for a more satisfying job might be monetary. The economy’s still a bit shaky, it feels risky to jump ship. But I’m guessing the bigger hurdle is mental. It can be scary to change things up, especially if it means learning new skills. While it might take a while for the economy to right itself, job-haters can do something today to change their predicament: “touch the snake.”

You might have come across this seemingly counterintuitive phrase in Creative Confidence, the new book by my friends and colleagues Tom and David Kelley. They’re not suggesting a literal serpent, of course, but the “fear of failure” coiled up in our brains, ready to paralyze us with inaction at the smallest provocation. The Kelleys were inspired by Albert Bandura, the world-renowned psychologist and Stanford University professor. Bandura developed an approach to overcoming fears called “guided mastery.” Using real snakes, Bandura would walk people through a step-by-step desensitization process. First, he’d say there was a snake in the next room. Next, he’d make them stand at the door. Eventually, they were able to walk inside the room and touch the snake without anxiety. After that, their phobias were gone. As it turns out, guided mastery doesn’t just help people with lifelong phobias, it can help those looking to make life changes, too.

Many years ago, for instance, I decided I wanted to be a designer, but didn’t know what it entailed. At university, I gradually learned the process of design by doing it. At first, I wasn’t very good (in fact, most of my ideas were pretty terrible), but step by step I got better and, by the time I graduated from college, some of my ideas were good enough they made it to market. Any doubts I had about being a designer had disappeared, thanks to a series of small successes. Bandura would call this belief in my creative abilities “self-efficacy.”

This holiday weekend, if you count yourself among the disaffected 70 percent of employed Americans, I challenge you do some soul-searching between bites of turkey. Ask yourself: What’s your “snake”? What’s holding you back from having a job that fulfills you personally as well as professionally? What small steps could you take right now to get you on the road to your dream job? As Bandura discovered, any action, however big or small, is the best antidote to fear.

How will you start down the road of your new working life?

(Posted also on my LinkedIn Thought Leader blog)


When we’re doing job interviews, the phrase “good cultural fit” gets bandied about a lot—and for good reason. IDEO’s stock in trade is creativity, collaboration, and human-centered innovation.

We don’t have discrete departments, rigid job titles, or corner offices. In fact, most corporate trappings simply don’t work for the kind of work we do, and honestly, neither do the types of people who crave them. The success of our company depends upon hiring people who are not only smart and talented, but who also have great emotional intelligence. We look for insatiable curiosity, irrepressible optimism, deep empathy, and those who play well with others. (Lone geniuses need not apply!)

Here at the Top 5 qualities I look for:

1. They say “we” more than “I” when recounting accomplishments. If they’re generous with giving others credit, I know they’re team players and will accept feedback.

2. They talk about failures, not just wins. If you’re trying to bring new ideas into the world, you’re going to fail…a lot. How you recover and learn from pratfalls is the true test. Or as we say: “Fail often to succeed sooner.”

3. They’ve spent time teaching as well as learning. Having an advanced degree shows diligence and mastery. Teaching shows you’re committed to making others successful, too.

4. They’re nice to the receptionist. When the interview is over, I check with whoever’s manning the front desk to see how the candidate acted upon arrival. Were they polite and friendly or did they treat the receptionist poorly? If it’s the latter, I know they only relate well to those in their perceived social group. Not very empathic or human-centered.

5. One final note about how we hire. We believe in asking for forgiveness, not permission.This goes for the job application process, too. Turning in a standard-issue résumé and cover letter won’t turn heads. Candidates who have wowed us have taken creative license and gone the extra mile to demonstrate their capabilities and passion. They’ve made video portraits, designed custom apps or, in one case, brought turntables connected to a dancing robot for an impromptu DJ set.

Hiring’s not an exact science—finding truly outsize talent never is—but these five qualities help us hone in on that most elusive quality: someone who feels like an IDEOer.

What other qualities suggest high emotional intelligence?

(Posted also on my LinkedIn Thought Leader blog) 


I got the chance to talk on NPR last year about ideas to deal with the jobs crisis. My perspective then, as it is now, was that education is the key. I don’t just mean a good high school education, which is obviously critical. I mean having the right set of educational choices when it comes to training for employment. One way to encourage this is by re-energizing apprenticeships, which have largely faded away over the last few decades in America. Why have apprenticeships faded away? I think it is because they have failed to keep up with many of the new fields that offer the best employment opportunities. I question why there are not more apprenticeships available in software development or design or even entrepreneurship. These disciplines, amongst many others, are ones that benefit from hands-on learning rather than conventional teaching. Universities are not necessarily the best place to train for these skills—in countries like Germany, a combination of training in the workplace with some supplementary college attendance has proven to be a very successful model.

Apprenticeship represents a mutual commitment between trainees and employers and ultimately benefits both. The retreat of apprenticeship has coincided with a change in attitude of many employers away from investing in the education of their workforce, toward an expectation that the education system should ‘manufacture’ the right ‘product’ for them to employ. I believe that if employers recommitted to the idea of apprenticeship they would reap significant rewards not only in terms of better trained employees, but also a less transactional, more purposeful workplace with significantly higher engagement and loyalty.

I recently came across a startup that, in the absence of a resurgence of apprenticeship, is letting prospective employees take matters into their own hands and train themselves before applying for a job. LearnUp, founded by Alexis Ringwald and Kenny Ma, lets employers post the training materials they usually use once they have employed someone. Applicants can then ‘learn up’ on the job before they apply, making them more competitive as applicants and reducing training time for employers. Companies like Whole Foods, KPMG, and Gap already have training programs available there. This seems like a great example of an innovative educational model that can reduce the skills gap and give those looking for employment a better shot at getting the jobs they want. What other innovative models exist for reducing the skills gap?

(posted also on my LinkedIn Thought Leader blog)

In my Harvard Business Review article I introduce the idea of design thinking with the example of Thomas Edison and the customer centered, systems thinking, approach that he took to the creation of the light bulb. The great engineer of Victorian England, Isambard Kingdom Brunel (pictured here), was also not a typical engineer. He cared about the experience his customers had when they traveled on his railways and steamships. He may have been a design thinker.

Something tells me that design thinking was widely spread long before design was seen as a profession and long before we started to write about it. The difference was that it was intuitive and its practitioners often seen as slightly odd. They were not typical inventors, engineers, artists or businessmen. They integrated aspects of all of these and they focused on creating solutions that met the needs of the customer. I believe that design thinking is part of a longer tradition of integrated, human centered, creative problem solving. The early examples were mavericks who used their intuition to determine how they approached and solved problems and created breakthrough ideas. Now we exist in a time where we need more than a few intuitive mavericks to tackle the challenges in front of us. We also exist in a time where we have compartmentalized ourselves into ever more specialist disciplines, using engineered processes to create incremental solutions. We need to be inspired to cut across boundaries to make new connections and insights. Some of the great mavericks of the past can provide such an inspiration. My list includes Brunel, Edison, Charles and Ray Eames, Akio Morita, Steve Jobs (of course), Ferdinand Porsche. Who else should be on the list?