Career development and Via Negativa

If you are not still in school or in early college, you probably realized the necessity of constant professional improvement to develop your career. Even with some years of work on our backs, courses and new experiences help us to have an ever bigger impact in our teams and companies.

This is completely true!

But since there are already plenty of people discussing how to add these new skills to your belt, I will talk in this post about non-technical actions you can take that will boost your career.

How doing something not related to my work can help me to work better?, you may ask.

Fair question. And it is there where the concept of Via Negativa comes in:

A Via Negativa approach tries not to solve a problem or to act smartly, but instead tries the bad consequences and not act stupidly.

A Via Negativa action will try to create the possibility for good things to happen by removing the bad things.

In our context, I will show three Via Negativa actions that will remove some recurring problems of modern life that may make your professional development more difficult.

So… let’s do it:

Create an Emergency Fund

Definition

An Emergency Fund is an investment stash that covers 6 to 12 months of your expenses. “your expenses” seems precise, but it is not. In the case of an emergency fund, we are talking about the minimum to keep you alive and fairly confortable.

It will probably include renting, food, basic transportation and internet (COME ON!), but some other things may be added according to your life. I, personally, include two in-house pizza nights and 50% of my regular educational/books budget. A $80 dollar wine every week and semestral trips will probably not be included here.

Monthly savings of 20% of this minimum are already a good starting point - although killing possible debts can be workable along this savings, if it is something your struggling as well.

Why would I need this?

The Emergency Fund will remove a good portion of the “what if (something bad) happen?” from your life and give you the freedom to pursue something better with full force.

If you are stuck in a toxic work environment or if you see that your work do not create loops that enhance your professional development, your Emergency Fund will be your safety net to say … to all this and look for something better. Also, if your employer politely dismiss your efforts, you can be less desperate.

This freedom will not improve your life as a professional per se, but it will enable you to make some moves towards it that would be too risky otherwise. Knowing that life in our hands is truly empowering.

Tips

Remember I said an Emergency Fund is an investment?

It means you shouldn’t pile some money under your bed or put it in a savings account (don’t put any money on those).

But don’t worry if you don’t understand investments. An Emergency Fund requires only two charateristic in the investment:

  • Inflation matching growth: Once you create the Emergency Fund, you shouldn’t have to worry about putting more money there - you should “forget” about it and only use for emergencies. Therefore, you should look for an investment that matches your personal inflation (the prices of the things you considered in the creation of the Fund) for sure - no variable growth or risk of loosing money.

  • D+1 maximum reclaim time: It means that the investment should be transformable in money in your account in 24h or less. Since we want to be prepared for emergencies, we want to be able to put our hands on this money quickly and without bureaucracies. It usually implies less growth on the investment, but the first tip makes it clear we are not looking for extraordinary growth at this point.

Exercise

Side-by-side with good nutrition and inner-psychologic understanding, the single-most force to keep the human machine functioning is exercising.

The small and constant stress and deterioration that weight-lifting and running cause on bones and muscles are essential to keep them healthy. And more than that, they benefit from the small dosages of chaos - becoming stronger and stronger every week.

Exercises can help you in your career by keeping you on the game for more time. During your 20s and 30s, your body can deal with pretty much any lifestyle. However, from 40 years old onwards, the body will no longer be able to follow the intensity of the mind - you will be less willing to travel and to stand long hours of work. On the other hand, during 20s and 30s, you will be still growing in your career, your ability ot impact will be limited. Later stages of your careers is when you have the experience and influence to cause big impact - and it is in that period that you will need a strong body.

The exercising period can serve as moments for meditation and relaxation from everyday life, when the control of the environment and goals is yours and yours only.

Tips

  • Make the exercising period short and frequent: I prefer 1-1,5 hours session 3-4 times per week. It allows me to go strong at each session while not taking a big portion of my agenda;

  • Engage in activities in which you can constantly progress: The idea to increase the likelihood of engaging in the activity itself in a constant manner. If we are talking about something that one cannot get “better”, such as dishwashing, the level of motivation to perform the activity is low. In exercising, I would say that nothing is easier to track progress that weightlifting and running. Activities like soccer or martial arts, although funny and with great benefits, are harder to measure progress.

  • Face it like a profession: It may sound extreme, but the exercise of thinking about exercising (going meta…) will fool your mind that constant progress and frequency are important. If you think about yourself as a professional weightlifter, every time you miss the gym, you use bad form or have a regression in load you will automatically reflect how can you compensate for it, instead of thinking “Ah… not a big deal”.

Clean Up Your Environment

At first, I thought of naming this section “Clean Up Your Room”, but it would may confuse people with Jordan Peterson’s Clean Up Your Room. But let’s talk about the more materialistic / practical part of Peterson’s idea: To organize and simplify your everyday activities.

It’s ease to see yourself in a situation that everything you deal with is big and complicated: Your notes are spread throughout 5 apps and 3 notebooks in an unorganized manner, your computer desktop have 35 icons, you are learning about 3 tools and 2 programming languages your wardrobe consists of randomly thrown clothes, etc. And your project? No need to talk about that…

The problem with such environments is that, although it’s possible to perform any activity, they are inherently slow and error-prone. Every decision demands both mental power and physical effort - draining your capacity throughout the day. On top of that, since the environment is already complex, daily increments in its complexity pass unnoticed.

To mitigate these problems, as you don’t change tires of a car while driving, it’s necessary to stop your daily activities and apply three verbs in the target messy area:

  • To Organize;
  • To Remove;
  • To Limit.

To organize will create environments of high cohesion, meaning that related things will be close together. For instance, in the confusing note situation described above, a step to organize would be to use only one notebook - digital or physical: Notes are all related to each other, so let’s keep them near each other. Do you need to look for a note? Go look in that one notebook. In this case, obviously, you can increase inner cohesion by creating organized folders in a deep structure, where each folder have very few direct sub-folders, but many indirect sub-folders.

To Remove will simplify the environment by keeping only items that are necessary. In the note taking situation, you will probably throw away the notes about that J2ME class you had in 2005 and those intranet sites from your previous job. Besides out-dated things, you may want to throw away things that do not provide you at least medium-term benefits: If you have a 200 blog posts links in a TO-READ note, you may want to simply by cutting 80% of it - if you are alive until know with it, you will probably continue to do so; and good chances is that a good part of the deleted links are no longer of value to you.

To Limit is the process of creating rules for the usage and management of the environment. Coming back to the note taking situation, I can set a rule of never have a and in a folder name: I.e. a folder can only contain one exact type of thing; or I can set on my calendar to every move all notes that I haven’t edit to a Archive folder every 6 months. Rules are not meant to be restrictive: After all, there is none to complain if you change or not apply them. This is a pro and a con at the same time: You will be the only one responsible for following the rules and evaluating their effectiveness. There is when meta-rules come in scene: You can create rules for when to evaluate the rules - this interval has to both long enough to make the rule a habit (automatic action/decision) and short enough to you to remember how were things before the rule.

Tips

Clean Up Your Environment is all about making things simpler (it’s as expected) and reduce number of explicit decisions throughout the day through the creation and refinement of habits. To make such changes easier, I would suggest three steps:

1 - Attack the simplest things first: Starting changing the big aspects may seem the first step, because it can yield results right away. However, most of the time these things are too complex to be simplified in one round. On the other hand, simple things, such as days to do specific chores or organizing your desk will free you up to be able to fix more complex things, such as your college/work/friends agenda.

2 - Incremental and focused change: Trying to change every habit at once is a recipe for disaster. If you focused on one aspect, such as your computer files or the cleaning of your house, you can both reflect deeply on where you are and where you want to be (and the path), getting results in it all the time.

3 - Be obsessed and make others think you are crazy: During habit formation one single break in the chain, a day you don’t go to the gym or the piece of book you left on top of the chair, instead of puting it always in its place, can build up to a pile of actions that require you to start over. Therefore, keeping the consistency is crucial to transform an wierd act into something natural. OBS: Others cannot know everything you feel in relation to some messed up area of your life - they will say that it’s not a big deal etc. You can politely say that for you it is and you will stick with your actions, even if thet seem to take some extra time now.

Conclusion

No matter the technological advancements humankind come to have, every day will still 24 hours (in this solar system). And if we want to better use this time spend part of this time in improving your career, you avoid shorting the window available for this improvement. Delaying opportunities and not taking risks can be mitigated with a good financial net; lack of energy in later stages of life - when we can impact the most - can seem minuscle if we prepare our bodies properly; and the simplification of our daily activities free us up to focus.

By avoid the bad we open space for the good.