“You always need to manage your scarcest asset,” a mentor used to say. And though he is long gone, his words still careen inside my head.
I think he was saying that the less you have of something, the more you need to take steps to preserve it.
The four human assets are time, money, energy, and expertise. Maybe now there is a fifth: attention.
Of the five assets, in mid-career and, gulp, mid-life, our expertise may be the least scarce. We’re nearing the apex of a lifetime of education, experience, and finely honed gifts. It’s life after the so-called 10,000 hours. This pretty much is as good as it gets.
After Life Is Unfurled
When you’re in your twenties, with the ribbon of life yet to be unfurled, the most limited resource is money. That is, unless you are leeching off a trust fund or living in your parents’ basement, and mama is still ironing your tighty-whities.
At 50, money is not as scarce, of course, but the time horizon has shortened. The asset of time grows scarcer by the day. We marketers begin thinking about the time when firms will think twice before hiring someone in his or her 50s. Career trajectories do not rise forever (Maybe now is the time to start thinking about saving to buy that small ski shop in Vail before corporate begins to eye a prettier and younger squeeze).
Energy also grows scarcer with age. Let the interns and the naively ambitious build friendships in the wee hours of the morning while slinging code, designing roughs, and writing copy with Red Bull and Jimmy John’s.
I’d like to think I can still pull an all-nighter, but why?
Managing the Other Asset
Years ago, I read an article by Dee Hock, one of founders of Visa, who said that at least 50 % of a leader’s time should be spent managing himself or herself (“The Art of Chaordic Leadership,” Leader to Leader).
That’s a crazy high percentage. But now that I’m in my early 50s, I think he may be right.
And part of that 50 % is managing what I pay attention to, now that I’m ostensibly in the final third of my (current) career. My attention is a limited asset. It’s perhaps the scarcest asset now that I’m post-49.
Like most professions, the field of marketing has been uprooted by the torrent of social, automation, big data, and mobile. I’m easily distracted by the crush of information that broadens me but doesn’t necessarily deepen me. Staying abreast of the changes in my chosen profession is fundamental. It’s basic to playing the game. Complexity requires that I pay attention to change and, well, change.
But paying attention only to what’s next can be a form of intellectual laziness. In short, we can gradually and almost imperceptibly stop growing, both personally and professionally. If all I’m doing is scanning TechCrunch and dissecting the mobile habits of 17 year-olds, then I’m likely stunting my development.
I’ve added several disciplines to my life to ensure that I’m managing my limited asset of attention more wisely:
1. I limit my intake of shorter digital content. Instead, I read books (ebooks), white papers, and other forms of content that require structure, reporting, research, and decent prose. More lengthy content disciplines my mind to follow an idea longer than the few minutes it takes for you to read this post. I don’t want merely to consume content, I want to engage the ideas themselves. If all I’m doing is breezing through the Wall Street Journal or Seth Godin or MarketingProfs.com, then I’m shriveling intellectually.
2. I read within select themes. I’ve decided to curtail my reading and drill into a handful of categories: the craft of writing, American West literature, culture, entrepreneurship, and fly fishing. The culture bucket may be a bit too large, but that helps me justify reading a book like Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World by Jane McGonigal. I still probably read too broadly, but the taxonomy helps me say no.
3. I read upstream. In a couple of my categories, and especially work categories, I attempt to read upstream (academic publications, for example). The prose in academic literature is clunky. And reading academic marketing literature is worse than throwing down a bottle of melatonin. But traipsing through more technical writing slows me down. At times, I’m forced to look up the meaning of words. I know I’m at the right level of reading when my vocabulary is improving.
4. I regularly attempt to learn something completely new. It’s one thing to be an expert in a topic and then layering in reading to keep current. It’s another to be a newbie in a category. This can feel humiliating. Several years ago, when my sons learned to snowboard, I planned to ski beside them on two skis. I had learned to ski in Colorado when I lived there in my 20s. After my boys mocked my skiing, I shed my Coloradoan pride and strapped on a board. Shaun White, I was not. And so now my sons mock my so-called shredding.
Whether personally or professionally, the humiliation of being a novice gives me the perspective of a prospect, of someone who is engaging a new service or project.
Boredom is one of the side affects of life after the 10,000 hours. The four disciplines help me stay fresh in the midst of the chaos of change that will swirl now and forever in our profession.