"We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit." --Aristotle
This is the last post in my "professionalism" series for now. I might come back to this topic in the future, but I wanted to conclude with a few techniques that are purely about your own preparation and diligence as a professional rather than about your interactions with others.
My other posts dealt mostly with the subject of respect in interpersonal professional communications. Being organized, responsible, and doing what you promised were all important elements of that.
But the core of being a successful professional lies in not only how you work with others but how you do the actual work itself. This involves constantly learning new things, remembering how to do your work correctly and in a timely manner, and presenting it in a way that is acceptable and understandable to your audience.
This sounds simple, but there are many pitfalls to doing this consistently. I'd like to point out three main categories of pitfalls or techniques that resonate strongly with me or that frustrate me a lot when I have to deal with them being done poorly by others.
Information should be Consistent, Correct, and Fresh
At AMA Capital, I had the opportunity to work with a lot of different brokerage firms and international trading companies. They would send me documentation of how their systems and APIs worked, and we would rely on that information to trade with them or engage in some sort of business deal.
We quickly learned that 9 times out 10, the information provided always had some (significant) flaw. I don't expect perfection out of other people or businesses, but I expect the only mistakes or omissions made to be insignificant ones. Instead, we would consistently find that information was copied and pasted incorrectly and without modification, major details were excluded, and certain clear parameters were defined completely wrong. And this happened across many different companies we worked with.
This obviously made us quite distrustful of what anyone told us and taught us to have the mentality that we always need to discover for ourselves how something works rather than relying on someone's word. On the one hand this may be a decent practice, but it's also pretty sad and inefficient.
The three major areas of mistakes that we kept seeing (and which I wish professionals would improve at) were the following:
- Consistency: Numbers from one page to the next (or spellings of names or descriptions or details) were different. This is particularly troublesome because we don't know which number is correct and we end up counting the entire document as pretty much useless. This might come about from modifying one section of the document without remember to modify another section. By being more thorough and careful in doing document updating and by having one list of parameters that everything else refers to, this type of inconsistency can be avoided.
- Correctness: This is obvious, but the information listed needs to be correct (accurate numbers, units, etc.). If something is an estimate or guideline, that should be differentiated from something more concrete.
- Freshness: Information should be kept up to date. People often skip the work of documenting technical or business changes because the documentation work is boring and time-consuming. This leads to documents being out of sync with reality and confusing the people who depend on that information. This applies to information online as well, such as features, specifications, blogs, etc. Keep your information fresh and up-to-date to show others that it can be relied upon.
Be an Expert and Amateur at the Same Time
The first part of this tip is obvious, but the second part may not be.
The first part says that you should aim to be an expert in your field. This means doing your work carefully and staying up-to-date on industry news, blogs, etc. For example, I read the Wall Street Journal on a daily basis, the Economist weekly, three different futures or currency magazines on a weekly basis, and follow about 20 blogs through Google Reader. Most of my reading is skimming, but I fully read articles that catch my attention or seem relevant to something I care about.
An important part of being an expert and being responsible with one's knowledge is knowing where that knowledge ends. When someone asks me for help with something I don't know, I volunteer to them that I don't know and explain whom we should talk to or how we can go about finding that information. This shows a level of humility to the other person (that I know where my knowledge stops) and makes them confident in the things that I tell them I do know about. This is much better than always giving your best guess and having people think that you know how to guess but can often be wrong.
The second part of this tip is cultivating the "beginner's mind." This is a term that Shunryo Suzuki-Roshi, a Zen master, wrote about. In essence, this means considering yourself an amateur at all times and willing to learn new information and change your preconceptions or world views. By being more open in this way, it will be easier to take in new ideas and ways of working, which will allow you to grow much more effectively throughout your life.
Finally, I will end this post with some thoughts on language, grammar, and why they matter.
I am always paying attention to the style of a message in addition to its content, and so does everyone else (even if not consciously). For me, noticing many spelling mistakes and grammatical errors makes me question how careful and educated the writer is. Even if I know they learned grammar in school and may even remember it, the fact that they can't take the time to proofread or consider which punctuation or spelling makes sense in a given situation shows me they are not careful with details and cannot be trusted to complete a job all the way themselves. Of course, I easily forgive occasional typos or small grammatical mistakes, but if they happen all the time, I get worried.
I'm sure people will argue that little things like commas and apostrophes don't change the course of the world. Most of the time they're right, and it's just about care for detail. However, in some contexts, such as legal documents or email communications in business negotiations, using ambiguous words or forgetting some punctuation can drastically alter how others understand what you write.
Therefore, I think it's always prudent to be careful with grammar and language, even in very informal contexts like Facebook and Twitter. Sure, you can use abbreviations and online-speak, but make sure you're clear, and sometimes, a comma is really worth that 1 character out of 140.
A book I particularly enjoyed reading a few years ago about all this is Eats, Shoots, and Leaves. It's for people who already know grammar but are always confused about certain things like where to put the apostrophe on words that end with "s" (no, it's not always at the end of the word), when semicolons or dashes are appropriate, and when capitalization is required or not required.
I hope you've enjoyed reading this small series of posts, and continue to let me know what you think (and if you have suggestions for future topics).