8th Wonder of the World

Once I hit my mid-thirties, I started losing track of my age.  Sometimes I have to pause and think, and calculate the number of my rotations around the sun.  Time passes by deceptively quickly.  The months and days blend in with each other, and sporadically I have these startling realizations where I feel like I’ve been asleep and just woken up.

Like when, after spending 4 years abroad, I start reading the news and every article’s headline looks like it could be from the Onion.  I swear to you, my Feedly at some point started looking like April Fools’ Day, every day.

Or when you start not being able to comprehend pop culture or music.  And when the music you grew up listening to, becomes ‘old school’.  Sigh.

Or like when I go to the gym, and everyone is younger than me.  And I end up wrestling with high school kids.

Or when people who I think are not that younger than me, keep calling me sir.  That happens, by the way, when you’re in your mid-to-late twenties.  When it first happened, I was pleasantly surprised.  Now I’m more disgruntled.

Or when you lose touch with some friends for a few years, and that new job or project they were working on whose name no one knew, ends up being on the headlines of major newspapers.  And they become startup founders with huge exits, fund managers with billions under management, managing directors, directors, and start becoming the grizzled old guard.  This is astounding and inspiring at the same time.

Einstein called the power of compounding the 8th wonder of the world, and it truly is.  When you’re in school, everyone is kind of equal.  You have standouts and geniuses, but you drink together, study together, sleep together.  Shortly after graduating, you start seeing peoples’ paths diverge.  Ten to fifteen years out, and you see people on opposite ends of the spectrum.

People who haven’t taken care of themselves end up with serious health problems.  Some end up in jail.  Others make fortunes.  Others have almost fully grown kids.  Still others completely turn their lives around from drug addicts or violent juveniles to successful businesspeople.  It takes time, but the tiniest bit of compounding plays out.

I don’t know if it’s universal, but in my twenties I couldn’t even imagine being thirty.  Now I’m in my late thirties but I definitely can imagine 40, 50.  I wish when I was younger, I had fully appreciated this power of compounding.  And believed in it.  I would have made plans in 5- to 10-year increments.  Because although they might have taken nearly a decade, the things that my friends and colleagues said they would become, they truly became.

What’s your next 5 to 10 years look like?  It goes by in a flash.

Things I’ve Learned as a Consultant – Part II

  • As an extension of the last point of the last post, when you’re in professional services, whether banking, law, design, consulting, whatever, you’re trying to sell someone something that there are no physical results of. And sometimes, not even precedents. You’re saying ‘trust us’. So how do you build that trust? A brand goes a long way.
  • But having been on both sides of this — the salesman and the person doing the contracting/hiring, I believe the absolute best thing that will help you nail the pitch, without question, is a sample. Samples are the strongest test, for the simple fact that having something that addresses the requirements perfectly makes you impossible to ignore. This not only makes them know you are capable of doing the job, but that you’ve listened. It is a rare client that knows 100% exactly what he or she wants before the service has started, because as I’ve written in the previous post, clients engage you based on a dark nebula of capabilities they imagine you can do. In the beginning, it is important for them to know that you are responsive, that you can react to their feedback.
  • But I cannot stress this enough: “Let em test the product, give em a promo show/Just a breeze, not enough to catch a real vibe/Then we drop a maxi single and charge em two for five/Ain’t tryin to, kill em at first just, buildin clientele/So when the album drops the first weeks it’s gon’ sell” — Jay-Z (Rap Game/Crack Game)
  • The reason is that if you have a sample or a pitch that addresses their requirements, it will cause them anguish if they have to pick someone over you. It will cause them to justify their own metrics. You will be remembered.
  • If you are in a profession that does not allow you to provide a work sample, just be aware that a buyer of services, especially if they are purchasing a particular service for the first time, will latch onto other things (attribute substitution). For example, how polished of a speaker are you? Do you buckle under pressure? Do they like you? Do you have the proper gravitas? Are you older, do you have a few grey hairs? Many of them are unfair and irrelevant, but this is what happens, so it helps to be aware.
  • Related to that last point, there are people in the consulting business who dye their hair grey and wear glasses in order to appear older and more experienced. Just saying. When you’re a bright young person it’s easy to become disillusioned about this. But if you encounter this situation, it is better to step back. What is it really telling you? That as much as you think clients are paying for the actual insight, they’re paying for reassurance. They are buying the brand.
  • The higher your fee, and the longer you take, the higher the expectations of your client. They will grow. And grow. It is better to program in interim deliverables to anchor their expectations early and allow for feedback. This is as a result of differing perceptions of time between those in the flow of doing work, and those waiting for something.
  • But curiously, even if you are able to finish something ahead of schedule, having any extra time left leads to doubts. You’ll check and recheck your work. Due to Parkinson’s law, the project has a good chance of actually always ending up taking the amount of time allotted to it.
  • Everything is about good communication. It’s not just about having the facts or a superior product. You can have a superior product and still lose the pitch, you can have all the facts and insights but fail to engender understanding. And you can have titular authority in your firm, but fail in managing or marshaling the resources of the people under you. Good communication includes soft skills, connecting with people, speaking with enthusiasm, being authentic, etc.
  • Smaller clients are good because often you work directly with the person who is both the decision-maker and stakeholder in the service. But smaller clients have less to lose when they try to negotiate your fee — down — after you’ve already performed. They can also be demanding, and your interactions will be subject to the whims of the person buying your service, who is often the same person writing your check. Big clients will often have no problem paying you, but because the stakeholders, decision-makers, and people you are interacting with can be three different sets of people, the layers of hierarchy and management can lead to confusion, delays, conflicting directives, which ultimately means, more time spent on it and more work for you.
  • Since consulting is the business of selling brains, the necessary conclusion to this premise is that the better the brains perform within a given length of time, the more value you can capture, and the less costs you incur. Research has shown that cognitive thinking is a physiological process, meaning it’s another body function regulated by energy levels. Keep up your energy levels and you have the potential for longer periods of higher thought. Exercise, meditate, eat right. This cannot be stressed enough, and goes back to the athletic component of traveling for consulting.

Things I’ve Learned as a Consultant

  • As in any other job, being good at the job is a process, not an outcome. Pursuit of the frontiers of the field, a focus on incorporating new ideas, relentless introspection and feedback, hard work, and constant improvement of technical skills will help you stay ahead.
  • Identifying and improving the necessary technical skills was the easy part. Merely recognizing what the other necessary skills were, like salesmanship, self-discipline, introspection, hard work, was harder, and it was hard to miss that I didn’t even have them.
  • Consulting is a lifestyle choice. This is not only when it comes to travel, although that is a significant portion of it. The consulting lifestyle revolves around the project lifecycle. It starts with the pitch and sale, moves onto research and analysis, and concludes with presentation and feedback and iteration — with different required skills in each portion of the cycle.
  • When extensive travel is required across multiple time zones, being good contains a physical, athletic aspect to it as well. Maintaining clarity of thought, focus, and polished communication skills when I am physically in a meeting with a client while my biological clock is deep in an REM cycle, is as physically demanding as being in minute 32 of an intensive Muay Thai workout.
  • There is another, longer cycle, which is the lifecycle of a consultant himself or herself. As an entry-level person, you are primarily engaged in research, analysis, report preparation. As you progress out of the back office (figuratively speaking) and into more of a client-facing role, you are called on to do more meetings, pitches, presentations, face-to-face communications with the client. Before you know it, your job is no longer research and analysis; it turns into that of a representative, salesman, and manager of the younger versions of you. As with the project-cycle, different skills are required at different points in the cycle.
  • There are several things about the nature of the job itself. First, a consultant is a paid outsider, so that no matter how convincing you are, nor how much you know, you have no inherent power to actually implement your ideas. Clients can and will ignore your advice. This can be demoralizing.
  • Another important thing about the nature of the job itself is that that you’re in the business of selling time — your time, which is finite. Consulting is the business of selling your capabilities to achieve a recommendation, insight, or strategy, which in itself is the product of human minds working in real-time. If that sounds vague, that’s because it is. And because what you’re selling is so undefined, there is naturally a huge variability to it, regarding both the actual product and your client’s expectations. Managing both of these things becomes a huge drain on resources and time. Clients will, almost as a rule, demand that you do anything and everything for them that they’ve seen you do, read about you doing, heard about you doing, and imagine that you can do.
  • Because of this variability (also known as customization), scaling a consulting practice is difficult. Consulting is the business of leasing a limited portion of human brainpower for a limited period of time to accomplish a task. Unless the human brains in your employ can be programmed to think faster and more effectively at the same time, increasing the productivity of the fundamental resource (brains) has natural limits.
  • But scaling can be done, and in order to do so, the metric that I find natural and easy to focus on is the implied professional fee that is being charged to the client. This can be done in almost any service industry: think about what you’re charging the client in terms of an implied per hour cost. Take your fee and divide it by the number of hours you or your people will work. Whether it is $100, $200, $500, $1000+, the principle is the same.
  • If you want to scale and grow, you need to ruthlessly outsource tasks that can be performed at an equivalent level to those with the lowest rate. If your rate is $500/hour, does it make sense for you to be doing document preparation or formatting that you can pay $15 to $20/hour for? Or even to be maintaining a model yourself? The argument to this is that by removing yourself from the work, the overall work will lose quality. As a thought experiment, does a film lose quality because a director is not doing the cinematography or acting himself? This is a big problem in small consulting companies where everyone is expected to do everything. My experience has suggested to me that this is immensely inefficient.
  • Merely going through this exercise will force you to develop systems, templates, methods, and training, which will increase the productivity of the entire team. Another issue at play here is the sheer economics of batch tasking and the costs of switching. Switching tasks incurs mental and thus temporal costs. Even if, theoretically, there were a ‘superstar’ consultant who could do each of 5 individual tasks at a superior rate than anyone else in the organization, this person may still be slower to complete the entire ‘set’ of tasks than 5 different people specializing in those tasks, because of the switching costs.
  • This is the kind of issue you deal with as you make the transition from entry-level positions to higher ones, and you’ll have to abandon old habits and gain new ones. This is the kind of struggle you experience at any professional services firm. Where you go from being a person who produces work, to the one who guides and oversees it, and then finally who ‘manages’ and sells it. You remove yourself from the work that you were originally hired to do, and you need to develop new skills to adapt.
  • It may very well be the case that you are content with the level of sales and work-to-reward ratio you are experiencing. Then none of this applies. But in a changing world, stagnation is by definition a regression. To even keep up, we must keep growing and optimizing.
  • More on people — who as brain-carriers, are a consulting firm’s primary asset, as the saying goes. Programmers talk about the 10x programmer, and to a certain extent I believe this is true of people in any service-oriented industry. Performance conforms to a distribution with fat tails on either end. 80% of the people are in the middle, which does not imply mediocre. It just means everyone is clustered there. Then there are the 1–5% who are outliers in either direction. Alternatively, if you think about the 80/20 rule, it is saying that a sufficing level of work, the 80%, is easy to achieve. This is the equivalent to getting a solid B in a bell-curve weighted class. I hated this system in college, by the way. But the 20% is the spread field, where you distinguish yourself from others. It’s a wide open field. 20% is the details, and this is where people differentiate themselves by adding more value than others.
  • Think of it this way. Say you hire a painter to paint your walls. Both cover the walls in paint, but one of them pays attention to the details. He covers your existing furniture, he pays attention to the finishes, making sure the edges and corners are perfect, nothing is smudged, no glue is on the ground, nothing has been broken, making sure there is absolutely no blemish anywhere, everywhere. Conscientiousness and care go a long way in differentiating yourself from the pack. To use a consulting example, at the analyst level, this would be someone who works faster and harder than others, builds new frameworks and approaches, even while paying attention to formatting and presentation, to typos, wording, someone who builds models that can be easily followed by others, someone who integrates frameworks located across different sources, someone who doesn’t hard-code inputs in Excel, etc.
  • All of the above is in the name of widening the gap between implied hours charged for, and hours actually worked. The other way to do this, obviously, is by increasing the number of implied hours charged for; i.e. charging more. The easiest thing to envision, in theory, is the hardest to pull off, and this is to develop a truly unique skill. A moat skill, a monopoly skill, one that no one else has. As in the story of the repairman and the hammer. When you develop a skill like this, you can charge whatever you want. But this is incredibly difficult to do.
  • The more realistic thing that can be done is develop a brand and a reputation for good work. A brand is something that does marketing for you even while you sleep. A brand helps you charge more for work of an equivalent quality, because in consulting, the hardest thing to realize is that people are not buying the service itself — they are buying the reassurance. This is why lawyers can get paid even when there is a risk of losing, and consultants can get paid when there is the clear possibility of finding nothing new. This relates back to the old saying that consultants are in the business of using the client’s watch and getting paid to tell them what time it is. But people hire them anyway.

What We Call Luck or Success is Actually Investing Well

Or, even a lottery winner had to buy a ticket.

Not to conflate the above with investing, but the point is that what we often call luck or success is the result of hundreds or thousands of low-cost (or high) and invisible options working in concert.

Every time you move through this world, incurring costs in the form of time, effort, pain, you are building a portfolio of invisible options.  Whether its learning a language, attending a course or university, traveling out of town, a conversation, going to a party (“networking event”), reading something, learning anything.

Options can develop on their own, with little effort, with the addition of time; i.e., the proverbial investor who buys a building in a dilapidated neighborhood and reaps the rewards decades later when it gentrifies.

These options are hidden and hard to quantify and so we often dismiss them, but I believe they’re a true source of wealth.  Think about the saying ‘right place, at the right time’.  Well, that person had to travel to or be at that place, with that particular mix of skills or mindset.  Traveling somewhere is an option, the mix of skills and experience you carry with you are also a compounded, well-mixed option.

This is why the young are wealthy beyond imagination, although they don’t even know it – not only do they have more time, they also are able to accumulate options more quickly and cheaply than older people who have entrenched obligations, deteriorating energy levels, higher opportunity costs, etc.

A thought experiment: What low-cost options am I picking up every day?  What can I do, to drench myself in optionality?  🙂