What I’ve learned from my grandmother about life and Owntrepreneurship

My grandma passed away last week. She was 90 years old, and until very recently mostly healthy and extremely sharp minded. She was diagnosed with cancer some 2 months ago and the decline was swift and painful.

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Putting aside the pain and the longings, I got to thinking about what my beloved Grandma taught me about life, and which of these lessons can be applied to Owntrepreneurship. We’ll, taught is not the right word. She never “Told” me or “taught” me anything, but by observing her life and her behavior I’ve learned many important lessons about what’s really important in life:

  1. Resiliency- we tend to forget this, but Europeans living through the first half of the 20th century, and especially Jews, have had much harder lives than we will ever have and had to overcome many obstacles that later generations don’t have to face- like war, immigration and economic crises.
    My Grandma was born in Sambur- then Galicia, Part of Poland (today in the Ukraine), immigrated to Argentina when she was 10 with her family. She started elementary school in Rosario without knowing a single word in Spanish, but quickly overcame this obstacle and led a happy lives in the thriving local Jewish community. She married my Grandfather, a young doctor and had her first daughter, and then decided to immigrate to Israel. Arriving in Israel in the 50s must have been a big shock- made worst by the fact they settled in a Kibutz (a communal settlements), living in tents and sheds and forgoing all luxury of middle-high society she enjoyed in Argentina. She was a trained optometrist, but that was not a required profession at the new settlement, so she worked whenever she was needed- at the communal kitchen, tending babies and finally settled on a job as a seamstress, where she worked for many many years, mending the clothes of dozens. Since my grandfather was a doctor who worked travelled often she was also tasked with raising my mother and her younger brother. And yet, through all the hardship she remained optimistic, and adjusted quickly to the new, oftentimes worse situation. Perhaps that was the trait of many people living in harder times (I’m guessing one might even call her lucky- had her parents not left Poland the entire family would likely have perished in the holocaust), but to this is one thing I will always admire about her- the ability to adjust, bounce back and keep a smile on the face while doing so.
  1. Ability to re-invent (or pivot)- having been the “Doctor’s wife” for most of her life, when my Grandfather died at 68, she was left with a big hole in her life. But she kept going and re-invented herself as the ultimate grandma. She was the driving force behind our family and always made sure we were together on holiday and family occasions. She became more independent and started to travel the world, go to concerts, movies and shows and never had a dull moment until her recent decline. Even a broken hip in recent years did not hold her back. She was truly another person, no more the shy, appeasing, small women, but a strong, appointed and fun loving.
  2. The power of a supportive network – research shows that one of the crucial elements in longevity is the existence of an embracing community. My Grandmother had just that- a group of friends who were together from their 20’s and stayed together through good and bad, living in a small, protected community. Several of her close friends attended her funeral – all about her same age (90). The ability to create and maintain such a network is crucial in achieving long and happy life. But her network was not limited to her friends- she also cultivated an extended family-like network, of many, many “adopted” children she took care of when they arrived at a young age to the kibbutz (as a result of Israel facing many immigration waves in the 50’s, many kids from large families were sent to more established families since their parents were unable to support them having just arrived in a foreign country with no job or knowledge of the language). These kids grew up, had kids and grandkids and they all referred to her as “Grandma”. Until her very last days she would remember who was doing what, where everyone was living and even kept a small notepad with names, addresses and phone numbers, just in case she would forget someone’s contact details. This large supportive network was evident in her last days when people from all over the country came to pay her a last visit, and the many people who came to her funeral.
  1. The currency of Love- my Grandmother was never rich. Whatever she had, she would always give away, and what she couldn’t in terms of money or physical means, she passed on in the form of the most powerful currency available. That of love. And people loved her back, and respected her for it. By always helping others and being truly empathic, she was able to create such a powerful following, of people who would gladly help her, should she ever ask (she almost never asked anything).

I loved my grandma dearly and already miss her. But thinking about what I’ve learned from her gives me comfort, and also serves as a reminder- she would not want me to feel sad or sorry after her demise, but she did wanted me to apply the lessons I’ve learned in my life, and help other just like she did.

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Toxic work environment- What you need to do now

The CEO shouts at everyone. Prior to the annual review meetings everyone is scared as hell. Good people leave, replaced by mediocre ones, replaced by truly bad ones.

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If it’s toxic, move away

Yes- you are now officially working in a toxic environment.

Perhaps it’s you to blame- the signs were there, but you chose to pick behind the curtain anyway… you know- lots of people saying it’s a bad place, some rumors about senior executives from hell.. but you were offered a decent paycheck, and the Lady at HR was really nice.

Perhaps it wasn’t always like that- when you started working there it was a smallish company, and it felt like home. Five years forward, 200 employees in the door and all the original C-Suite replaces by class A assholes, and suddenly it’s not so nice anymore. Regardless, the first step of dealing with such environment is to identify it.

The first part is fairly easy- simply look around and smell the air. That’s right, you can sniff fear, anxiety and evil from afar. Second is to consult with your (trusted only) colleagues- do they feel this way too? Chances are you won’t be the only one feeling this.

 

So you wait. Maybe things will change for the better? (they won’t, they never do. Only for the worst). But once you’ve waited long enough, you need to act to control the situation.

Many people want to know how to handle working in a toxic work environment. It is a question repeatedly asked in forums and Quora-like websites. It resonates all over the corporate world, meaning that many suffer from this ugly phenomena.

So how do you deal with it?

In three step: acknowledge it game over, mitigate and depart.

Wait. Did you say depart? I did. From my experience (not exclusive to work environment, but in general) toxic environments don’t change. They don’t change without a fundamental change, one that is almost impossible for most companies. Consider this- if the executives are ok but the majority of the established employees are useless, than in all likelihood the company will fail, sending the execs home to be replaces by more aggressive one, which will in turn drive the decent employees away, spiraling ever down. Or the opposite case- where the majority of employees are cool but all the top brass (or just the founder/ CEO) are worthless- the same result- good people (especially in mid- management positons) being pushed away, second tier people brought in or promoted, average people leave, etc.

So the very first step in acknowledging the place is toxic- is also the last- acknowledging you will not work there long before being corrupted yourself.

Once this is behind you (leave the blame game behind – at this it doesn’t matter why and what brought you here- like the Titanic, you are only interested in finding your way out safely.

But in the meantime- you need to create a “safe Zone” for yourself. A place (physical or metaphorical) where you can avoid the daily dosages of poison. It could be a coffee club, a running group, or ideally, a group of close colleagues working together on a project. These will serve as your “buffer” from the environment, provide support and help in need. But don’t fall into the trap of thinking this safe haven can keep you safe for long. Even if you’ve amassed several people who help (or even follow you), and even if you have some senior executive is grooming you to be a future VP- don’t stop looking for way to get out. And this is really your goal- to find a better place for you to work. Not only an “Ok” place, a genuinely BETTER one. Who wants to go from a bad to a mediocre company? And this may mean you will have to settle (for salary, location, position). But don’t despair. These are all temporary setback, and a small price to pay for “cleansing” your environment. I can tell you from my own experience it’s worth it- I’ve left a secured, high paying position in which I could have done pretty much everything I liked (my Boss was located in a different continent and cared little about me and my whereabouts – oh, the wonders of the multinational corporate!), for a less secured one, which paid less in a much smaller company. Why? My first daughter was just born and I didn’t want to spend my days working is such environment- I knew this would reflect on my behavior at home and I was not going to let my company have such negative effect on my little one. Two and a half years later I can say it was worth it and I would done it again given the same circumstances.

And so should you. Don’t be a quixotic hero trying to fix what cannot be fixed. If you’ve identified the toxic vapors in the air, get a grip and evacuate.

 

 

who can multitask better? an entrepreneur or a toddler? think again…

Looking at my elder daughter (almost 2.5 years old) play is an amazing experience. She can be completely absorbed by something- like changing the clothes of her doll, or arranging a party for all the stuffed animals, and in a second she would lose interest, jump to another completely different activity and focus on it. And do it again in 3-4 minutes. And again…

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Try to focus on one thing at a time

We tend to think of ourselves as capable multitaskers – we all do so many different things throughout the day, mostly in parallel. Who hasn’t talked on the phone while checking emails, surfing the web or updating his social media status? Even at home we jump from one activity to another, always juggling. We tend to look down at youngling and their inability to perform multiple tasks in parallel coupled but what we perceive as incredibly short attention span (why can’t they sit still for more than 5 minutes?).

But truth is we’ve got this all wrong. True- kids don’t multi task, at least not in the way grown ups do. They focus on one activity, and one activity only, complete it (or lose interest) and move on. So while they don’t perform several activities at once, they have the ability to concentrate to an extreme on the single activity they are engage with now. And they achieve this extreme concentration very rapidly, almost instantly.

And this is what we’ve lost in our race towards multi-tasking. It is true we are required to perform many activities at the same time, some of which were inconceivable until very recently (driving and texting a friend half a world away for example). But what we find more difficult to do is concentrate on the task at hand.

Take writing this blog post for instance. I’ve started by opening a new word document, than wrote the first paragraph, then an email notification appeared so I’ve checked that email, my phone buzzed so I read some Whatsapp correspondence, I looked up an image for this piece so I got stuck on google image search for a while. By the time I’ve got back to the document I’ve lost my train of thought and had to stare at the screen for several minutes just to remember what it was I wanted to write.

And this process is both time consuming and mentally draining- it is said that as adults we need about 15-20 minutes to achieve full concentration. Any disturbance throws us back at square one. When it comes to creative work it’s even more extreme- some demand absolute solitude an quite in order to be able to create.

But kids? All they need is 10 seconds of playing with something new and they are fully absorbed, to the degree they can’t even hear you when you call them. And what seems to us as short attention span is simply a result of their intensity- they invest so much mental and physical energy into their endeavor that after what seems to us like a short time (which could be very long for them) they are over it and ready to move to the next one.

Us adults? We just thing we are doing many things in parallel, but in fact we are no better- simply jumping from one activity to another and by the end of the day we are surprised at how tired we are and how little we’ve accomplished (mostly the mundane tasks, which are in essence maintenance activities, nothing more).

So when people brag about their ability to multitask, I just smile and think of my kid playing at home. I Wish I could be more like her and be able to gain immediate focus at the task in front of me. But since I’ve lost this ability I’ve had to learn ways to focus on the activity I’m trying to complete- from removing all nuisances, to working in very late or early hours of the day (when there’s little distractions).

But the most important thing I’ve learned from her is that you simply can’t force it- if she’s not interested in doing something she simply won’t commit to it. Similarly I’ve learned that I can’t force myself into focusing on creative activities (like writing)- I need to grab the inspiration when it hits me and try to use it there and then.

And I don’t bother about multitasking anymore. I know it’s futile. I rather do 3-4 things well during the day than finish with the feeling of exhaustion and frustration of having accomplished nothing.  And if I have some spare time, I’ll go and watch my daughter play. It is inspiring on a parental and a professional way.

Should we ditch the fantasy of being an entrepreneur and focus on becoming an OWNtrepreneurs instead?

Our society and culture praises entrepreneurs- Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg. All people who risked a lot to start their own business and have had a profound impact on the way we work, play and interact with others. They have also gathered some immense fortunes for themselves in the process, and thus embody the spirit of the American dream. But looking at these inspiring figures can be daunting- these are all obviously extremely smart people, exceptionally focused and with seamlessly endless drive to achieve their goals. When they started their respective ventured they were also very young (not to mention male, American and white)- So it’s easy to compare oneself with one of these giants and come to the conclusion that we mortals are not like them. You and I are simple (erase the irrelevant) too old, tired/live in the wrong geography/ lack the ambition to be independent employees or company owners/ have a mortgage/too busy raising kids/ lack access to funding/ born in the wrong age etc.

Being an entrepreneur isn't for everyone, in fact, it isn't right for most people.
Being an entrepreneur isn’t right for everyone, in fact, it isn’t right for most people.

And these are not simply excuses. There’s a good explanation for the fact that most successful entrepreneurs are young American males from high socio-economic status. Older, poorer people living out of America (or any other place where there’s a startup culture) have much to lose if they quit their jobs and become full time entrepreneurs. And even for people who actually take the plunge the chances of failure are staggering- most startups/ new businesses would fail, according to statistics.

So most of us just stick to what we do, dream about becoming an entrepreneur but rarely do something about this. And feel bad about it.

We shouldn’t. Entrepreneurship is not suited for most people, and most will fail or will be miserable pursuing the big time startup/ exit dream.

But that does not mean we have to be another cog in the corporate machine. People working within organizations of every size, from tiny to global, can do wonderful things, feel professionally and personally satisfied and leave their mark. The trick is to adapt an Entrepreneurship-like mentality, what I call owntrepreneurship. If you think of your job as part of your career, and treat it the same way an entrepreneur treats his venture, you will feel the immediate impact and positive change.

You don’t believe me? Just look around you. In any organization you’ve ever been a part of, there were always some individual who seemed to be “above it all”. They have the freedom to set their own schedule, choose the task they find interesting and are respected by their peers and superiors alike. They are owntrepreneurs. They treat their day jobs as part of their career, as part of their venture. Other take note and provide these individuals with unique opportunities, not available to the “regular” employees. Once they excel at these opportunities they earn the respect, material compensation and promotion to a senior position, where this process repeats itself. They don’t do so by thrashing others or engaging in office politics (although some political maneuvering is unavoidable in large corporate environment, but that does not make it morally wrong). They focus their efforts on advancing their career and usually their environment recognizes and rewards that.

I have made a list of things that an owntrepreneur needs to keep in mind. I call it the owntrepreneur framework. You can find it here:

https://owntrepreneurship.com/the-owntrepreneurship-framework/

In following blog posts I will begin to explore each of these ideas and explain how anyone can employ these idea in almost every conceivable work environment- starting from the most rigid (military service) to the more loose and dynamic ones (self-employment/ startup). This is derived strictly from my own experience (and others close to me, and others I will quote…) and is meant simply as a recommendation, and not a checklist of sorts.

I do hope you join me for this journey and enjoy the ride!