5 Career Orientations

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Looking for a new job, and moving into a new field, every day people ask, “Where do you want to work?”

And I have to answer, “It’s not the where, it’s the kind of work.”

After 5 years working for a huge monolithic organization, I am ready for some freedom. Small teams, larger voices. Less focus on punching clocks and more on creatively meeting challenges.

When the Harvard Business Review listed five careerist types, I knew exactly where I stood. Different types find work satisfaction in different ways, and one’s source of satisfaction can change over time. Here I am right now:

Getting free. Derr describes people with this orientation as “hard to work with, impossible to work for, slippery as eels to supervise and manage, and infinitely resourceful in getting their own way.” People who value getting free want autonomy and self-direction. They have less tolerance for regulations, status reports, and other forms of bureaucracy than those in the “getting secure” camp. Like getting ahead, the desire to get free is widely understood and even admired, at least in the U.S. However, people who are motivated by freedom must pay their dues before they can have autonomy. Even if getting ahead isn’t your primary orientation early on, when you’re still building your reputation, some argue that it makes sense to act as if it is. Once you’re established, you can shift gears and strive for deeper rewards.

Certainly slippery to manage, slouching into my  Monday morning update meeting, I had to hold my frustration at the fact that absolutely nothing had changed since our Friday morning review meeting. And even if there something minor to take action on, I’d already had to come ask for approval for it anyway. What is the point of the meeting again?

Groysberg writes:

Career orientations often draw people to certain lines of work, but it’s not as simple as saying that programmers are motivated by one thing, salespeople by another.

Which is why I have such a hard time naming an industry. It is the environment that matters to me right now.

Take a look at the rest of the list and let me know where you stand.

(Image FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION… by Christian Mayrhofer, on Flickr)

Dancing Past Detours on the Path to Success: Alan Watts with Tina Seelig

Dancing along with Alan Watts

I turned 33 on a midnight flight from Thailand back to Bejing two weeks ago. This is my Jesus year, the make or break year. For a brief moment I was tempted to reflect on failures, on things not achieved, and on a hazy path to success.

But I always come back to this video by this talk by Alan Watts. These sets of videos animated by Trey Parker and Matt Stone are essential viewing. The message of “Music and Life” is, just as the final note of a composition is not the point of a composition, so too a life’s destination is not its ultimate meaning.

Seelig - What I Wish I Knew When I was 20 coverTina Seelig, executive director of the Stanford Technology Ventures Program, in her 2009 book What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20: A Crash Course on Making Your Place in the World examines what makes for a successful career path. “Focused on a simple plot between time and success, when we don’t see a linear rise we get anxious.

She recounts a number of famous failures, the most famous being Steve Jobs. Fired from the company he founded, he went on to take time to create both Pixar and NeXT. Pixar made the first digitally animated movie, and the technology developed at NeXT continues to be the foundation of the Macintosh and iPhone operating systems.

Seelig writes:

Most people feel as though they should be constantly progressing up and to the right, moving along a straight success line. But this is both unrealistic and limiting.

Taking a suggestion from Carol Bartz, former CEO of Autodesk and Yahoo!, Seelig writes:

She thinks you should look at the progress of your career as moving around and up a three-dimensional pyramid, as opposed to up a two-dimensional ladder. Lateral moves along the side of the pyramid often allow you to build the base of your experience. It may not look as though you are moving up quickly, but you’re gathering a foundation of skills and experiences that will prove extremely valuable later.

My favourite example is Kurt Vonnegut. Far from a child prodigy, his first novel was published at 30. The first time he published a book that you’ve most likely read, Cat’s Cradle, he was 41. He was on the verge of abandoning the profession when suddenly together he was asked to teach at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and Cat’s Cradle became a success.

That plane, where I had turned 33, was returning me from getting my advanced scuba certification after diving a sunken wreck. The week before I was meeting Chinese entrepreneurs looking to make connections in Canada. I’ve spent six months learning a bunch of Chinese and a bit about business. I got to climb some holy mountains and saw a towering Buddha made of gold. White space on a resume, but a major movement in a symphony.

President Xi’s Hot Buns: Chinese politics in one story

Chinese President Xi Jingping at a steamed bun resturant

The Chinese saying “Heaven is high and the emperor is far away” (天高皇帝远, tian gao, huangdi yuan) is often called upon to explain the transgressions, both petty and glaring, that permeate everyday life in China. But the leadership themselves work hard to cultivate this distance, with leaders after Mao working to maintain the facade of a faceless bureaucracy.

So when President Xi Jinping walked into a local Beijing lunch spot and ordered two dishes and a some buns with the regulars, it made quite a stir.

Now unofficially dubbed the Xi Combo, the Paramount Leader stood in line to order six pork and green onion baozi, a pork liver soup, some mustard greens, paid 21 yuan (equivalent to $4), carried his own tray, and sat down to finish his lunch. The restaurant quickly filled up with spectators. The next day over 400 customers lined up to get the Xi special. Some were even visiting ethnic Chinese tourists. According to an interview with Zhu Yuling, owner of the Qingfeng chain, sales are up 35 percent across Beijing, and it has also been reported that franchise applications have also increased.

Despite his rapid centralization of power to become the strongest ruler since Deng Xiaoping, Xi has cultivated a populist streak, hoping to cash in on some of the same energy which brought the now disposed potential rival Bo Xilai to prominence. Xi has instituted a crackdown on corruption, and his call for restraint in government travel, cars, gifts, and banquets have reportedly hurt sales of luxury goods. High-end bijiu companies have cried foul at empty tables and full bottles. And 5-star hotels have fought to lower their ratings to skirt restrictions.

Even Xi’s choice of lunch resembles the President’s order to stick to “four dishes and a soup” (四菜一汤, si cai yi tang)—an admonishment against extravagance with a history going back to the Ming dynasty—in order to cultivate good will and cement the CPC’s leadership. But Chinese netizens had mixed reactions. Supporters praised Xi, calling his unassuming move a “sign of hope.” Detractors were more cautious. After finding that a previously hyped story of Xi hailing his own taxi was false, commenters have also become suspect of a possible PR stunt, using an anonymous blogger as a astroturfing platform.

The government didn’t do well to calm their suspicions. On January 1st the propaganda department (aka the State Council Information Office) demanded that all websites delete a post (original text in Chinese) questioning the identity of the poster who broke the restaurant story and who seems to only to repost reports from official media.

But even astroturfed PR masquerading as feel-good stories can get out of hand and threaten the country’s well-balanced media harmony. By January 14 news outlets were officially ordered to “moderate the heat” of the story, and keywords linking the President’s name to “putting on an act” were blocked from Internet searches. Also to the government remains fearful of any public movement turning combative. Already there are reports of protestors in Beijing and Hangzhou also used steamed buns as a protest against “Boss Xi” and to draw attention to grivences such as home demolitions

All the aspects of a great Chinese political story are here. The almost saint-like status of the leadership, the holy relic of the President’s now removed dining chair, and the ongoing blessings of the Xi Combo. A rich princeling slumming it with the commoners, slurping pork guts in an effort to set a good example for cadres. A hot news story that may or may not be a stunt, but we can’t let that speculation ruin our good press. And finally the realization that it’s too hot for our carefully controlled harmony and invokes too much leader worship, time to denounce it.

Lushan, We’ve Come

Mount Lu 2013

Driving to the base of Lushan (Mount Lu) from Wuhan takes about two and a half hours. Buying your ticket gives you a happy opportunity to stretch your legs, but then it is back into the car for another hour of twisting roads to the top of the mountain.

As you rise it begins to rain. Rain isn’t quite accurate. You are entering into a cloud, and the cold dampness will follow you for your entire stay. On top is a cute village with shops, restaurants, and hotels, as well as the villas of China’s rich and famous.

The mountain has a storied past. It is the place where Pure Land Buddhism was founded in 402 CE. Kung Fu lovers will recognize their invoking of “Amituofo.” Christian missionaries used to take their summer retreats here in the Qing dynasty period, and were the first to actually settle and develop the mountain. Before it was home to mainly Buddhist monks.

Lushan is also famous for being the desired vacation spot of the communist leadership, and for hosting the Lushan Conference, or the 8th Plenum of the Eighth Central Committee in 1959, where one of my favourite actors in Chinese History, Peng Dehui, denounced the failures of the Great Leap Forward. Perceived as a personal attack on the Great Helmsman, Mao denounced Peng and threatened to return to the countryside and raise a new revolution if the Party betrayed his leadership. Members quickly sided with Mao, and he rode this new-found confidence to eventually launch the Cultural Revolution in 1966.

As we walked around in the mist our family encouraged us, for health reasons, to yell at the top of our lungs, “Lushan women lai le!” — Mount Lu, we’ve come!

China’s Third Plenum: Summary, roundup, and questions

Third Plenum

Last week’s Third Plenum of the Chinese communist party in Beijing had something for everyone. A reform of migration restrictions for rural citizens, a relaxing of the one-child policy and banking reform for the urban middle class, and an enlarged profile for the market in economic affairs. At the top of it all, President Xi Jinping solidified his role as the strongest leader since Deng Xiaoping. Yet one question wasn’t addressed: how is the party going to prepare for a country where the middle class  has become a majority and demands the political power that comes with their enlarged status?

With its initial communiqué making a poor impression on the media and the markets, the Central Committee decided to release its program ahead of schedule, with the full text of Xi’s speech to the committee as an additional exposition on the reform measures. China’s Third Plenum was widely expected to introduce a number of sweeping reforms to the county’s policy, particularly in the economic sphere. Echoing the Deng-led 1978 meeting, this meeting was expected to deepen the “reform and opening up” (gǎigé kāifàng, 改革开放) which has led to China’s rapid rise.

Even the modest blip from their double-digit growth rate following the 2008 financial crisis has China worried. While its export-driven model has brought them to becoming the world’s second largest economy, only by developing a middle class—that is, a consumer class—can the country ensure further long-term growth. Commentators had called for loosening restrictions on rural migration, strengthening consumer banking, and liberalizing markets to promote domestic spending and investment.

Summary of the Third Plenum’s Reform Agenda

After an initially baffling statement, the meeting’s policy agenda largely met expectations:

  1. The one-child policy would be relaxed, with couples allowed to have two children if either were themselves an only child.
  2. Rural migrants would be able to obtain an urban houkou more easily. Previously migrants were unable to register as residents of cities, leaving them unable to obtain social benefits or purchase property. For the first time China has become 50 percent urban, but 16 percent live as second-class citizens without an urban hukou. 
  3. Rural land reform, would allow farmers to “more easily” sell, lease, and borrow against their land. Stemming from earlier collectivization, all rural land is owned by the local Party, whose agreement is required for any sale. Not only is this a problem for a farmers looking to expand or change their business, but sales of land have become a way for local officials to generate revenue and line their pockets.
  4. The end of “reeducation through labour” and a limit to the number of crimes to which the death penalty applies. The extra-judicial system has for decades sent criminals and dissidents to labour camps without trial or appeal.
  5. The creation of a National Security Council streamlining foreign affairs, the military, and domestic security, modeled on the similar US council, but with a stronger view towards internal security. China here joins governments worldwide in using their favourite catch-all group of monsters: terrorists, extremists, and separatists. This is to be headed by President Xi, who already sits at the head of the Military Affairs Group of the CPC.
  6. Creation of a reform leadership group, also under Xi’s control, to further “comprehensively deepening reform.” Staffed by high-ranking members of the Politburo, this group’s mandate is broad in scope, overseeing the entire reform process from policy development to program implementation.
  7. The liberalization of the financial market, allowing small- and medium-sized private banks, as well as calls for the development of deposit insurance, the acceleration of market-set interest rates, and the convertibility of the Renminbi.
  8. In broad strokes, the Central Committee has called for an upgrade of the place of the market in society, from a “basic” to a “decisive” role in allocating resources. Private firms can now enter some protected markets, such as railways.
  9. Paradoxically, however, they’ve also called for an increase in the vitality and influence of state owned enterprises (SOEs), although this might be a matter of political expediency. SOEs must now remit 30 percent of their profits, up from 0-15 percent, and their is a move towards more professionalized management, with a separation of their business functions from government.
  10. Sweeping PLA structural reform, with a shift to joint command system and establishment of operational theater commands to replace the current seven military regions.
  11. Calls for a crack downs on pollution, greater control over the Internet, for the creation of an anti-corruption watchdog free from local interference, and for more collaborative decision making with an increased role for the rubber-stamp National Assembly.

President Xi comes out on top, but can he pull it off?

The meeting solidifies President Xi’s position as a new paramount leader. Many of these reforms, such as the creation of the National Security Council, had been proposed by Xi’s predecessors, Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin, without success. Unable to outdo opposing factions, mainlanders have taken to to calling Hu’s ten-year leadership a “lost decade.” It was widely believed that the era of the strong leader had ended, as consensus decision making gained prominence and an equal role developed for the Premier, particularly in economic matters. Yet, Xi was said to have himself led the team which drafted the resolution, a team which didn’t include Premier Li. By heading both the new security and reform groups, Xi has emerged as the strongest leader since Deng Xiaoping.

However, as the case of Bo Xilai demonstrates, significant power still remains at the local level, although Xi has used a struggle against anti-corruption to remove any obstacles to his reform agenda. Party bosses will be particularly obtuse to any reform of SOEs, which remain an important source of employment and tax revenue for cash-strapped local governments. Even if the reforms promote growth throughout the countryside, it might make governing the country that much more difficult, as power is decentralized following economic growth. It remains to be seen whether Xi can marshal the political muscle to both pull off these changes and weather their effects.

Is the closed society more efficient than the open one?

Along with economic reform, China’s Third Plenum has solidified state security and continued Xi’s crack-down on Internet freedom. As Orville Schell notes, Xi continues the long line of Chinese rulers, from Sun Yat-sen to Deng Xiaoping, with a goal of “not a more enlightened, democratic country, but a nation unified by nationalism and ruled by a single disciplined party that could galvanize China into meeting the historic challenge of becoming a wealthy and powerful, and thus respected, nation in the modern world.”

Thus, while the reforms of the one-child policy and the judiciary seem to be a move towards greater human rights, we have to balance this against the tightening of media controls, the detention of activists, and a rejection of “universal values” of human rights as a bourgeois strategy to weaken the Party’s theoretical underpinnings.

The current leadership, following in Deng’s footsteps, continues to believe that “a closed society with relatively open markets is a more efficient way of generating wealth, power, and respect than an open society paralleled by an open market.” The question is, will the people share that belief along with them? As people move from the country to the city, from poverty to affluence, and from a state of ignorance to a state of education, how long can the Communist Party rely on their continued support?