The Circle(s) of Life

Nants ingonyama bagithi, Baba!

There’s been some chatter on twitter (where else?) about an upcoming ‘Careers in International Development‘ seminar in DC. Folks attending will pay $65 to hear from professional recruiter for two hours on how to get themselves, well, professionally recruited. And that’s nice.

But then what?

Over to you, Sir Elton:

From the day we arrive on the planet
And blinking, step into the sun
There’s more to see than can ever be seen
More to do than can ever be done…

And herein lies a problem. Even once you’ve landed that sweet aid job, maybe even one with, er, “dank perks”, you’ve going to very quickly discover that it comes with a tremendous shedload of stuff flying your way. And I use ‘shed’ there as a polite substitute for another four letter word beginning with S, the same way we all say ‘stuff’ as the polite substitute for that same four letter word when talking about #swedow.

Some of it will be urgent. Some of it will be important. Some of it might even be both. Some of it you’ll be able to be on the front foot about. A lot of it you’ll be reacting to. Some of it will have modest but measurable and serious concrete results that will have you and your team make an impact for the people you’re working for this week and the next, and the adrenaline will flow. Some of it you think will have a much more serious impact about a year from now, if there were no meetings and skype would stop blipping and the phone stopped ringing and the emails stopped pinging, and you could just get an afternoon alone inside a locked room to think.

How do you make sense of all this? What do you prioritize? What do you ignore? What makes you cranky? What do you throw your toys out of the pram over? Because there will be a lot of potential for the latter,  but if you do it every day, soon people won’t pay the slightest attention. No, even for toy-throwing, you should have a needs analysis and a strategic approach.

Scott Belsky has a nice venn diagram and accompanying article. (You’ve probably already gathered that I like diagrams.)

Ooh, pretty

Unfortunately he then goes on to bugger it up for me with fancy talk about “opportunity streams” and how “surrounding yourself with more activity will increase your opportunity stream” and “working at the ISO intersection”. Here’s my take on it in words of one syllable. It is not quite about interests, skills and opportunities. Maybe in Belsky’s creative industry ‘opportunities’ don’t abound. But over here ‘opportunity’ is usually just code for stuff that needs doing that someone else doesn’t have the time to do. So let’s reflect that, plain and simple.

This Is Your Life

Now hopefully you’re good at things you’ve done in previous jobs. Or, you’ve simply moved on quickly enough before anyone could find out where you buried the bodies. It’s a small world though, so we’ll discount that scenario for now. And in a world of fixed-term contracts, there’s clearly in your mind the next job you want to do. Maybe you’ve got a Secretary-General’s baton in your knapsack. Maybe you just want that cushdie posting in managing your affiliate’s extensive local-governance capacity-development project in beachfront Zanzibar. In any case, the nexus between your previous jobs and your next job, is very likely the job description on paper for the job you’re in right now. It’s what you so successfully got yourself recruited to, based on your mad skillz and/or the $65 advice from that aforementioned seminar. Note carefully how this may not actually correlate with what you’re actually doing, nor what you need to be doing. That can be a good thing. Hopefully you have some judgement and have been hired by people who expect you to exercise it.

This Is Your Life (and it is ending one venn diagram at a time)

Now we turn to the challenge of getting done what actually needs to get done. This requires a four-pronged approach, the first three of which I believe require no further explanation.

Now we turn to the fancily named “ISO intersection” – the sweet spot. The main game. The white hot core of your work life. What’s this about then? You’re focused here on things you know a lot about. It is work that really does need to be done, and done yesterday, and done your way. You’re confident that success or failure here is going to drive future opportunities to work on good stuff. This zone of work is very, very special.

This is the dimension beyond that which is known to the common man. It is a dimension as vast as the space between your ears and as timeless as the infinite amount of hours you’ll put into it. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between evidence and experience. It lies between the pit of your fears and the summit of your knowledge. This is the dimension of the imagination and the innovation. It is an area which we call…. the Righteous Indignation Zone.

La:

This is the stuff you’ll think about in the shower in the morning. When you should be having quality time doing other things in the evening. This is where you’ll go all pro-active. This is stuff you’ll set up a skunkworks to get done, if it takes that. This is the stuff you’ll get cross about and pick fights with people over. This is the stuff you will rant about in the pub. This is the stuff where you are occasionally overcome by the suspicious sensation of being useful in the world. Congratulations.

But without adroit use of interns, delegation, consultants, facipulatory workshops, dodging/prioritization, and influencing others to ensure the rest of that big yellow circle gets resourced and tackled some other way, you won’t get to spend much time here. Take your eye off the ball for one day, and you’re back in that irrelevant good-at/want-to lozenge. (Email is undoubtedly the worst cause of this.) Ease up on the upwards-management and you’re sliding westward into the mere good-at/needs-done zone and six months later you’re wondering why you’re just generally annoyed with the world. Spend too much time trying your arm in the want-to/needs-done and you’re going to waste a ton of money, waste a lot of people’s time, and get a reputation for floundering around out of your depth.

These, my friends, are the Circles of Life. Hit it, Elton.

It’s the Circles of Life
And they move us all
Through despair and hope
Through faith and love
Till we find our place
On the path unwinding
In the Circles
The Circles of Life

Obviously this doesn’t apply just to you, oh Simba, oh scion of the sectoral savannah. It applies to everyone around you. Compared to my previous pre-NGO life in an absurdly better resourced organisation, the scope and space of work that everyone is trying to cover is stupendous. On core functions that have clear parallels with government and private sectors, there might be one person covering a range of issues where elsewhere there might be three, or six. The potential for yawning chasms to emerge on ‘stuff that needs to get done’ between individuals and between teams is huge. Don’t even think about gaps between organisations for now.

There are always more ideas – often good ideas – than warm bodies on hand to get them done. At an HQ level, there may potentially be years of work backed up on known problems or inefficiencies in the systems you have to work with or the approach to supporting the field. Aid work is often triage and not just in the external goals that we set, but in the limited resources that people in the biggest brand name NGOs can bring to bear on a set of tasks each day. Everyone’s gnawing on this problem. Directors, managers, peons, all.

Now… did I mention external goals?

Let’s wind this up. Let’s take this bottom-up and personal-sized reflection, and put it in the elevator alllll the way up to the top.

There are just a few things in there. I’m sure you can think of more…


15 Comments on “The Circle(s) of Life”

  1. Loved this post! Laughed aloud several times and also enjoyed the many diagrams. Nice work!

  2. clint says:

    Is the point it’s all very complex and you can make Venn diagrams. Ok and?

    • Cynan says:

      Well, no. If anything the point is that it’s all very simple, and that I can make Venn diagrams.

      But people’s mileage will rightly vary on this one. Excluding the final diagram, it’s totally subjective. You may like @ithorpe’s take on this post.

      • clint says:

        What is totally subjective everything or the final diagram and who is ithorpe? The post is really all over the place. I really have no idea of what the argument is here.

      • Cynan says:

        > What is totally subjective everything or the final diagram and who is ithorpe?

        I said it is all quite subjective, as it is based on personal experience. But the final diagram is much less subjective. I hope that’s clearer.

        Where the words “@ithorpe’s take” are seen above, that is a hyperlink that you can click on to discover who @ithorpe is, and what he thinks.

        >The post is really all over the place. I really have no idea of what the argument is here.

        Then let me summarize for you: People working in aid NGOs have a lot more work to do than they have time to do it. Therefore it always takes focus and choices to decide what you should be doing. Make the wrong choices and you will not be having a real positive impact on the lives of poor people. Your choices are shaped by your experience and ambition. And finally, there are parallels between individuals and institutions. I hope that’s really clear.

  3. [...] *The Circle(s) of Life – http://lavidaidloca.wordpress.com/2011/03/24/the-circles-of-life Behavioural economics and RCTs: trumpeted, attacked and parried – [...]

  4. [...] Back to blogging after further community visits and interviews, and plenty more back-of-the-motorbike thinking time. Following my last post on why I am doing a PhD, I’ve been reflecting more widely on what I might want to do more long-term: some combination of what I enjoy on a day-to-day basis, what I’m good at / qualified for, and what I think is important for contributing to poverty alleviation. Then I found that the excellent la vidaid loca blog had not only got their first, but has articulated these sorts of personal ideas through various colourful Venn diagrams and then extrapolated to the whole field of international development. It’s brilliant, read the whole thing and see all the pretty pictures here. [...]

  5. Brilliant. I had been thinking along very similar lines recently but you’ve articulated it so well. In fact, I’ve used a couple of the diagrams for a blog post of my own but have linked back here – keep up the good work.

  6. [...] La Vidaid Loca comes this excellent diagram which sets out the difference between what we are good at, what we [...]

  7. [...] Back to blogging after further community visits and interviews, and plenty more back-of-the-motorbike thinking time. Following my last post on why I am doing a PhD, I’ve been reflecting more widely on what I might want to do more long-term: some combination of what I enjoy on a day-to-day basis, what I’m good at / qualified for, and what I think is important for contributing to poverty alleviation. Then I found that the excellent la vidaid loca blog (http://lavidaidloca.wordpress.com) had not only got their first, but has articulated these sorts of personal ideas through various colourful Venn diagrams and then extrapolated to the whole field of international development. It’s brilliant, read the whole thing and see all the pretty pictures here (http://lavidaidloca.wordpress.com/2011/03/24/the-circles-of-life). [...]

  8. [...] Hood’s posts on Motivation and Sacrifice, one from Satori Worldwide on whydev.org, one from La Vidaid Loca, and another from The Principled Agent. Here’s a few of my thoughts on the [...]

  9. Sarah Short says:

    Genius – shared this with a few people already :)

  10. [...] body of work of 14 posts over 12 months, the most popular posts were The asterisk is everything, The circle(s) of life, and Once I gave a man my shoes. I promise to continue providing some absurdly intermittent [...]

  11. [...] want isn’t completely mutually exclusive. I think there’s a big, fat, intersection in that venn diagram. The trick is to get a hold of something within that space, and give it a tug. No, you’re not [...]

  12. [...] entire post here. Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this. Tagged: circles of life, [...]


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