The Four Hidden Dangers in Good Advice

Advice is everywhere. (It also weaves through this post.)

What college to attend, what career path to take, when and whom to marry, what car to buy, and even what book to read…many of the decisions that affect our entire life’s path begin with advice.

And most of it is “good” advice. Good advice emanates from the intent to lower risk…and therein lies the danger.

Here are the four hidden dangers in good advice.

  1. We give advice based on limited perspectives (our own life experiences): For example, it’s really easy for me to tell someone to invest in an index fund as annual return rates have been largely positive for a decade. Ask someone who grew up in the 1930s and they’ll have vastly different advice.
  2. We give advice with the desire to see the person succeed: The problem with this approach is that it often translates to a recommendation for the sure thing or the safe path. Would this type of advice sound as good if we prefaced it with, “This is my recommendation for the mediocre middle.”?
  3. We downplay the necessary work: To make our advice more appealing, we rarely focus on the late nights and early mornings required. We choose not to highlight the sleepless nights and the gut-wrenching decisions involved. Instead, we talk about tips, hacks, and shortcuts.
  4. We filter our own experiences: We remember good advice someone gave us that changed our lives forever. The problem is that it wasn’t their advice, it’s just what we choose to remember. We are inundated with advice, influences, cultural norms, perspectives, and both good and bad examples. Remembering a past success and linking it to good advice may be entirely accurate…or just a very normal selective memory.

What’s the solution for better advice?

Stop giving solutions or suggestions. Instead, encourage better questions.

Like teaching someone to fish, getting someone to ask better questions is critical to sustainable personal growth. Two foundational books on asking better questions are “QBQ! The Question Behind the Question: Practicing Personal Accountability at Work and in Life” and “The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever”.

Both have helped me tremendously to stop giving advice (my default) and to ask and encourage better questions.

What I Should Have Said (Cancer Diagnosis)

I walked into the meeting room and greeted the man across the table.

He replied, “One day closer to retirement!”

I looked surprised and inquired as to the date of the impending retirement.

“Only six years!” came the response.

“Six years?,” I asked. “That’s time for at least two cancer diagnoses!”

Here’s what I should have said.

Maybe it’s our career field. Maybe it’s just me. But the ever present reports of death, amputations, and illnesses (on and off the job) create a sense of urgency in my life. The next day is not promised, let alone the next six or ten years.

Great lives are made up of great days. Days where you make an impact. Days where you feel joy, days where you serve, days that you take action on your dreams. Great lives aren’t made up of deferred happiness, deferred action, deferred joy, deferred youth, or even slightly larger pensions.

If you stay at your job for the pension alone, you will die with regret.

If you stay for the pension and lie to yourself that you’re doing the job for a bigger cause (service, camaraderie, etc.)…and you still tell people on a weekly basis that you’re that much closer to retirement…you’re only fooling yourself.

On your deathbed, what would you give for 6 years in your 50s? How much of that pension would you give back for those 2,190 days of a healthy mind and body?

If I’m wrong, if I totally took the remark out of context, then may those six years instead be filled with passionate initiative, inspiring leadership, and really become something you’re proud to have done.

Which will he choose? Which will you?

Regret Minimization: Jeff Bezos’s Model for Keeping Risk in Perspective

In the late 1990s, Jeff Bezos worked at a hedge fund on Wall Street. After reading a statistic on the growth of internet use in a single year (a 2,300% increase) he had to make a choice.

He could stay and continue to work in the lucrative and quite stable field of finance or quit to build something on the internet.

(Note: it’s easy to deify the future CEO of Amazon, who is today worth $95 billion, but the focus here is on the decision model he used.)

Bezos used a decision model he calls “regret minimization.” He feared the day, which at the age of 80, he would pass time cataloguing his major regrets; the things he didn’t do and the opportunities he’d passed on. It was then he decided the 80-year old Bezos would never regret taking the chance on the internet idea. In fact, he’d be proud of the decision. So he quit the hedge fund, forgoing the year-end bonus. Bezos would later refine the regret minimization technique by adding that major life regrets are due to acts of omission versus commission.

As I enter my last year on active-duty, I think about the choices in front of me. What career path to take, where in the world to find the next adventure, etc. I find that passing these choices through the eyes of my 80-year old self helps a great deal. Would he regret this decision or would he be proud?

One drawback I’ve found already with this decision-making model; that 80-year old is eccentric and demanding, content with nothing less than a life lived at a high RPM and pulling in for the final time with an empty gas tank.

It Gets Easier

When you were single, life was busy. Then you got married, had a baby, and looked back and wondered what you did with all of your time when you were single.

When you were a new manager, every hour you learned something new. Yes, people really do that. No, people won’t ever do that. A year later, you’re in the groove and wonder what all the fuss was about.

What’s the secret? Strength is built through the power of exposure. Your comfort zone can be stretched.

Jia Jiang, in a TED talk watched over 1 million times, shows us the power of exposure. He set up an experiment where he was deliberately rejected for 100 days.

And what did he learn? It gets easier.

Whether you want a daily workout habit, a graduate degree, or to learn to better deal with criticism, it begins with exposure and difficulty. Anything you want that’s worthwhile…a new skill, a habit, a quality…whatever it is, becomes easier with exposure.

A personal example? As a perfectionist in some ways, I’m averse to taking criticism well. (That really means it hurts, I find self-esteem in perfection, and I take it deeply personally.) I’ve known for years that I must seek exposure to criticism to become better at learning from it. So now, instead of avoiding feedback, I seek it out. Instead of blurting out defensive responses and rationalizations, I listen. Over time, I’ve found criticism much easier to handle. This also means I’ve learned to be better at confrontation, negotiation, and difficult conversations. It’s not easy, but it gets easier.

What can you make easier through deliberate exposure?

Burned Out in Safety: My Personal Experiences and Suggested Solutions

Career burnout.

Burnout isn’t just a bad day. Left untreated it can fester and infect your entire life. It happens for various reasons, at different stages of a career, and solutions vary enormously. I don’t think it comes from a lack of passion, character, or work ethic. I do think it must be approached like boxing: You will get knocked down and you must get back up.

Here are a few specific times in my EHS career where I’ve felt burnout and how I found a way out.

  1. My first two years in safety were disappointing (at best). I’d just left a job in aircraft maintenance where the work was visible (an airplane), the job had a beginning and an end point (remove and replace an engine), and success was recurring (the plane functioned properly afterwards). I quickly found that safety had none of these qualities.

My solution: I found mentors. People who’d exceled in safety over the long-term. They helped me to measure success differently and find value in the process. They taught me to think big-picture about programs, culture, and professional progression.

  1. At nine years in the military, I received unaccompanied short-tour orders (translated: I had to go to a remote location around the globe, without my family, for 15 months). I had a choice to stay in and accept the orders or leave the military within the year. After a week of little sleep and a reevaluation of my entire life up to that point, I decided to stay in and take the orders.

My solution: I refocused. I decided to complete an MBA during my time away and committed myself to finding a way to do EHS better.

  1. I had seven years in EHS when I felt it again. I’d run every program, inspected every area, and investigated (it seemed) every type of mishap. There was nothing new to learn. I was bored and I wanted out.

My solution: I saved money. I decided that if I ever wanted a different career, I’d need the financial wherewithal during the transition. I committed to save upwards of 30% of my income annually. It added up quickly and gave me a feeling of freedom I hadn’t quite expected. When I didn’t need the money anymore, the job became fun. I went to work because I wanted to and not for the paycheck. This practice and feeling continues even today.

  1. I became the Air Force’s Safety career field manager. While the job description is long, it essentially means you have a whole lot of responsibility for the 750+ Airmen in the safety career field. I loved the opportunity to make a difference, but all I saw was an office job and felt immediately disconnected.

My solution: I called Airmen. When management of the career field felt too distant from reality, too disconnected from people, I called Airmen to ask them about their base, their work, and their careers. I still do. I open up my global roster, pick three names at random, and call them on the phone. I find it refocuses me on what really matters, connects me with current issues, and clarifies priorities. It’s become one of my favorite parts of the job.

Burnout isn’t easy to admit, let alone talk about or work through. But it’s commonplace in any career-field where the work is complex and difficult (medical doctors, attorneys, politicians, social work, etc.).

What do you struggle with? What solutions have you tried (successfully or not?)

Simplified Spelling

Theodore Roosevelt is best known for reshaping the U.S. Navy, the Panama Canal, charging up the hill in Cuba, and as a hero of conservation.

But during his lifetime, he failed at one priority.

He disliked the spelling of many common English words, so much so that as president in 1906 he ordered the U.S. Government Printing Office to use a simplified spelling of 300 English words.

Words like blessed, depressed, kissed, would become blest, deprest, and kist.

Congress revolted. The Supreme Court simply ignored the executive order and continued to issue opinions using conventional spelling. Congress voted 142-25 to repeal the order that same year.

He’d failed. But the “man in the arena” had gone down swinging.

However, after his death in 1919 many of the recommended words would take hold in printed language. His list gave us the current spellings of words like valor, wagon, plow, program, omelet, and behavior (among others).

So maybe he didn’t fail.

Maybe his “failure” got the ball rolling for next generation.

Are you failing or getting the ball rolling?

The High Costs of Staying in Your Lane

“Stay in your lane.”

In the professional arena, the phrase signifies advice to remain within your job description (duty description in the military).

For those who’ve seemingly stepped outside their core positional duties, outside their lane, there is a unique awareness of the costs. The potential loss in credibility. The reduced political and social capital. The consequences of relationship friction with senior managers. The ever-present danger of being put back in one’s place. The risk that you won’t please everyone.

For those who stay in their lane, there are also costs. One can move forward in their career, ever avoiding the conflict and risk that lay just on the other side of the lane divider. The allure of the lane, the warmth of the comfort zone, and the absence of the cognitive dissonance that comes with choosing duty over duty description is often more than enough to prevent lane crossing. The biggest cost? Losing the part of your soul that knew they could change the world. The 6-year old with the indomitable spirit. Gone.

Imagine a world where EHS professionals’ first duty was to keep everyone happy. Where sitting in the stands was more important than playing on the field. Where completing the checklist mattered more than making a real difference. A world where what you believed was more significant than what you actually did.

That is the world of staying in your lane. Of duty description over duty. And the costs are very real.

Is your blinker on?

Canaries in the Organization

Into the early 1900s, canaries were used in mines as early warning indicators for toxic gases. Possessing greater sensitivity than humans, the bird’s health warned of hidden hazard. If the canaries thrived, the air was free of toxic gases, the miners were healthy, the mine produced ore, the ore was sold, and a sustainable profit was earned.

Mines with more viable canaries were, by this logical extension, in a position to earn a profit. But this process could not be shortened; ore was still the goal. No matter how many canaries the mine had, they could not be sold by the ton like iron or lead.

We still have canaries. One canary in my organization is housekeeping. If I walk into a shop with poor housekeeping, I’d give 10 to 1 odds that their safety practices will also be poor. Their hazardous energy control, their flammable storage, their training…all of it in shambles as indicated by housekeeping. In the words of a much smarter person than me, “World-class organizations do not have second-class safety.”

Why this talk of canaries on a day meant for turkey?

Because I had another guy tell me this week that having a CSP doesn’t make one a great safety professional.

I got it. I do.

But safety training, including formal education, certifications, and experience, are like the canary and housekeeping. Walk into a mine or shop without one or the other, and I’d give 10 to 1 odds that their focus isn’t on being world-class.

I know that canaries (and certifications) never directly indicate the health of the mine (or safety professional).

But their absence may indicate other priorities.

What’s your canary?

Reading Your Own Obituary

 

When Ludvig died, the French newspapers got it wrong. It was understandable. There were eight children in the famous family. Oil, patents in chemistry, and government contracts had left the older brothers some of the wealthiest men in Europe.

The French newspapers called him a “merchant of death” in the obituary. They condemned his life’s work, calling his invention an instrument to “mutilate and kill.”

As he read the words in the newspaper, he thought about his life. His sole motivation for the invention had been safety. Early in his life, a brother had died in a factory incident handling nitroglycerine. That day, he’d dedicated his life to making a safer alternative, one he’d call dynamite. Dynamite would go on to allow the safe construction of bridges, tunnels and pipelines across the world.

When he finished reading the obituary, he saw the world differently. In his will, he gifted his vast estate to the creation of prizes. Prizes that would inspire generations toward advances in peace, literature, medicine, chemistry and physics.

His name was Alfred Nobel and he had the rare opportunity to read his obituary, resulting in the prizes named after him.

What would your obituary say in the morning paper?

What would it inspire you towards?

What is your single biggest challenge, frustration, or struggle?

 

“When it comes to your career in safety and health,

what is your single biggest challenge, frustration, or struggle?”

Post your response here or email me at josh@connectingEHS.com.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll write on the subject of your responses in the daily posts.

Looking forward to hearing what you think!