How To Become An Apprentice In Human Nature – A Must Read

For most of my life I have relied on the laws of physics, mathematics and strategy to explain phenomena and influence how I engage with the world. These laws, theorems and concepts influence our thoughts and decisions. Once internalized, the physical and technology worlds can most often be explained simply and logically. Our studies of first order principles establish the foundation for clear, true and rational thinking.

But, success and fulfillment in life requires relationships and collaboration with people both personally and professionally. Every human is unique, often irrational, making it challenging to explain behavior or how best to engage with someone for mutual success. It is well documented that social intelligence is as important or even more important than intelligence quotient (IQ) in life. Just as the laws of science are explained in physics books, we would all benefit to learn the laws that explain human nature.

Robert Greene’s latest book, The Laws of Human Nature, is a masterpiece for helping you become a better person and learning strategies for engaging with the right people while avoiding others. From the opening chapters on irrationality and narcissism to meditating your mortality, it’s a book that will change your life. It will likely provide frameworks and answers to aspects of your life you could not explain. I highly recommend this book for anyone that can relate to the five value propositions outlined on the back cover above. Understanding these laws, are an essential complement to the expertise that you have developed in your specific field of study.

Ryan Holiday interviews Robert Greene on the background and writing of his latest book.

In the interview, Robert Greene highlights that many people don’t know who they are. Ten years ago when I began running career strategy workshops at Microsoft, it became clear that this indeed was the case for most of the people I worked with. I too was challenged with an identity crisis at various stages of my life. People lacked an inner understanding of who they were now, why they behaved in a certain manner and how to collaborate with the wide range of personalities and cultures.

This intent of the “Know” part of the career strategy model is exploring deep into “knowing” as much as we can about ourselves. It’s a never-ending journey as we navigate through different phases of our life. The “Connect” part of the career strategy model outlines principles and virtues for interacting with people to achieve success and fulfillment.

The Laws of Human Nature has been added to the recommended reading list that aligns with the Know and Connect domains. Just as a new pair of glasses sharpens vision, internalizing these laws will adjust your mental model on how you carry yourself and see the world.

How To Turn The Elusive Goal Into Reality

It’s a gift to see the morning sun rise. Although, tomorrow is not guaranteed. We often think we have time to do this or that in the future. Retirement is often positioned as the good life. Weeks turn into months, months turn into years. Our goals that require contributions over long periods of time remain nebulous in a galaxy far, far away. We are often slaves to our job leaving a small amount of precious time for anything else. We work on other people’s goals not ours.

An addiction to social media and world events preoccupies and consumes our processing capacity. Our narcissistic tendencies fill the void with temporary vices and pleasure that only meaningful goals can provide over a longer period. We are bombarded by the illusion of success all around us, slipping us into a deeper state of inadequacy.

Tomorrow can be different.

The Goal

Pick one goal that has been on your mind and write it in a journal. The journal is critical to keeping score and collecting your thoughts over time. Achieving this goal is challenging but could significantly change your life. Just as important, it will add significantly value to others and change their life as well.  You are mesmerized by just the act of thinking about the goal. You would feel a deep sense of disappointment on your death bed if you did not achieve the goal.

Pick a goal that is personable and unique. Something you can call your own. The outcomes of your goal propel you and others to experience something very special.

The Story

Our ability to internalize and “see” the journey and achievement is critical to increasing the likelihood it will not remain a fleeting dream. Your task as the pilot of your life is to create the vivid story that will be told one day. We need to become believers and ingrain the story in our mental model right now. The pictures and snapshots in our mind will create reminders of this inspiring goal.

They emerge as we drive to work or exercise during our daily workout. Write the story in your journal and be as specific and detailed as you can. This an opportunity to be creative and not constrain your mind – think big. Plan the impossible.

Describe a typical day on your journey toward the goal. Where are you living ? What is your routine? What we the obstacles you faced and how did you overcome them? Who did you meet along the way and how did they help you? Who were the naysayers that you took note of to only prove them wrong? How did achieving the goal make you feel? How is your life different now? What are the stories of the lives you added value to?

The act of writing the goal and story in your journal will take effort and focus to translate a fuzzy idea into the vivid story.  Many of us struggle translating ideas into written form. But this very act forms and refines the goal into something you and others can rally around.  Yes, the hard work that may challenge your status quo and how you spend each and every day ahead.

An Example Story

It was Thanksgiving break back in 2012 that I thought about synthesizing what would become a cherished goal. Over the last few years I had been sharing career strategy concepts with fellow Microsoft colleagues and it had become more than an occasional hobby. Helping people along their career journey was a gift. It became clear that I was on an unintended journey although the goal was not concrete.

I realized that I was gaining valuable life lessons as a person and leader running career workshops across Microsoft. The career strategy best practices, principles and life lessons could be valuable if I could organize them into a document or even a book.

There it was – the goal. A book that I could give to my kids to short-cut and accelerate their learning.  Synthesizing concepts and knowledge that took me years to amass. The gift of my learnings and those of others could save precious time and change their life. It was primarily as a practitioner through writing, speaking and coaching sessions where this knowledge was created and distilled. I learned just as much about myself as I did about strategy and human behavior.

I still needed the visual to guide and capture the essence of the goal. A few months earlier I stepped onto the field of the renovated California Memorial Stadium at Berkeley. There it was – the visual of 63K people that I had connected with over the course of my journey that would fill the Cal Berkeley stadium.

Your visual could be a picture, a sketch, a painting – anything visual that captures the goal and drives motivation and action. You may also find it helpful to keep score and record the milestones along the way as I have in my personal quest.

Breaking the Mind Barrier

The biggest challenge to achieving our goal is paradoxically ourselves. We get caught up in trivial and non-values tasks that can otherwise but allocated to the goal. The drama and poor planning of others invades the precious 1,440 of minutes of our day. Meetings without agendas or clear outcomes. It’s essential that you break the mind barrier by altering your habits, schedule and protecting the space for making deposits toward the goal. Inspect each day to determine what you can change.

Recently, I have a dedicated a journal notebook to capture everything about my goal. I carry it in my bag everywhere to capture ideas, notes, challenges and progress.  I journal to describe what I am feeling and the challenges that must be solved for. The exercise of articulating these crystallizes the key ideas and solutions.

The journal is a way of holding myself accountable. Just the act of seeing the notebook each day is a reminder to get to work. It’s a goal I can’t buy or artificially produce. Although the goal I have set is a compilation of notes (ideally a book!), the journey and all of the people I will meet along the way is equally as fulfilling.

I have also scheduled a recurring task in my calendar to work on the goal each week. Working to make it a daily routine increases the likelihood of forming a habit that involuntarily drives action.

Sharing your goal with your relationships can help in two ways. First, the act of hearing yourself describe the goal to others drives clarity and confidence. You believe in it enough to talk about it with passion and detail.  Second, people more often than not are glad to help you even in small ways. You may be surprised to hear how others may be willing to help you.  Everybody loves a good story.

Time is Precious – Stop Wasting It!

The end of the year is often a convenient time to take stock of our life. We pause our busy schedules to spend time celebrating holidays with family and friends. The act of breaking our inertia from our normal routines can help us identify something important that we have been putting off.

A challenging physical feat, a repaired relationship, an amazing vacation, a new business – something you can call your own.  Ideally, something that creates memories that will last a lifetime.

Give yourself a unique and life changing gift this holiday season. The story and visual of the elusive goal that spawns you into action.

It may be the gift that keeps on giving for years to come.



Career strategy model for the next ten years

Ten years ago I began pursuing an experiment at Microsoft to evangelize a strategic approach to career planning that would take me on journey I never expected.  The hypothesis was simple – mutual success and impact could be optimized when there is a great match between the talent needs of the business and the personal aspirations of employees.  A powerful idea but yet rarely practiced.

The Experiment

The challenge was that many professionals did not know who they really were, where they were going and what they wanted.  Equally, managers often did not outline the current and future talent needs of the business.  I set out to enable that marketplace with the goal of changing lives and inspiring people to bring their whole person to the workplace.

It was a 7-step framework that I authored and used at group workshops, mentoring sessions and speaking events across Microsoft that would help this cause. Helping people find themselves and refine their career path to make the biggest impact both at work and life.  It was the most important contribution I could make and the events at Microsoft are cherished memories.  The experiment and interest had nothing to do with my job.  I was grateful for many leaders that gave me the latitude to pursue this passion.

Five years into this experiment a woman privately shared that I saved her life after hearing me speak at an event.  It was that day on November 10, 2013 that I realized that I would need to continue this unplanned journey into the foreseeable future.

Restarting the Quest

The quest that I outlined in 2014 had been on hold for the last few years. The death of both parents within three weeks, a move from Seattle to Austin, a job change, a divorce and a masters degree in data science.  Life happens and these rich experiences shaped my thinking even more about these 7 connected concepts.

I am now at a great place and inspired to resume the quest to help and connect with 63K people.  It’s special that my first events are connected to UC Berkeley as a mentor to data science students at the School of Information and a panelist for the Austin summer welcome party for those new freshmen headed out to Berkeley.

The draft of the often requested book is getting dusted off and expanded to include recent experiences over these last few years.

We all need a quest in life – something that is unique and special to us.  I found mine through curiosity and going after something big.  I recommend “The Happiness of Pursuit” by Chris Guillebeau for inspiration.

Updated Symbol

The original framework visual was recently reimagined to power the next ten years. The 7 concepts envisioned ten years ago remain pure but now in a connected model.  The person sits at the center with connections to the other concepts.  This updated visual was influenced by data science principles. It’s symbolic of my recent work building a large scale knowledge graph.  Unique knowledge is derived by understanding connected concepts and their interaction.  Deep insight is only possible when we connect all aspects of our life.  Single events may not be able to be explained until we connect them into larger stories.  Daily actions and behaviors are guided by what we know and want.  We are not timid to showing people who we are and what we stand for.

Our Mental Model

The principles of data science can be applied to shape the most important model – our brain.  The mental model of how we perceive and react to the world around us is shaped by our past and biases.  Each day we consume high volumes of data and our brain must make hundreds of decisions that ideally align with the objective function that delivers the outcomes we want to experience in life.  Many people have not built their “learning model” to guide each day and optimize time allocation. Cognitive biases impact quality decision making and we remain in a sub-optimal life.  How the principles of data science can be applied to improve our daily life will be shared in future posts.

The Power of Know

Over the last few years one principle always resurfaced especially during the challenging times – a confident, unwavering view of who you are, your values and what happiness looks like – can help guide critical decisions about our precious time, relationships and goals.  It’s the power of what we “know” in our mind and heart that eases and optimizes the decision process to our next state.


Throughout the years I occasionally would get the question of why I spend time and energy on this.  There are two simple reasons.

First, helping someone to shape their career strategy and see them take steps in a direction with purpose is an amazing gift.  I am often reminded by this when viewing LinkedIn and Facebook posts of people I connected with over the years.  I challenge you to experience this gift – help someone unconditionally with the expectation of nothing in return. You will be rewarded ten-fold.  Remember that most of us needed help breaking into the work force or transitioning into a new job.  Pay it forward or give back.

Second, it gives me an opportunity to reflect and practice these concepts to up my game.  Basically, practicing what I preach.

Call to Action

Time and how we experience a typical day is the most precious resource we have.  It’s finite and we don’t know how much time we have left in the tank.

How are you spending time?  Is it aligned with your top 3 goals?  Do you even have those written down?

Look at the five people you spend the most time with.  Do they have the aspirations and qualities you respect?

Do you need to leave something behind to move in a new direction?

Over these next weeks I will share content from “Know” for those looking to recalibrate their mental model this summer.

Connecting with inspirational people makes my quest possible.  Don’t hesitate to reach out and connect on LinkedIn, Twitter (@MrJamesGray) or my Facebook Page.

Anything is possible – just believe.

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