Podcast

Episode: 62 |
Paul Millerd:
The Future of Work:
Episode
62

HOW TO THRIVE AS AN
INDEPENDENT PROFESSIONAL

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Paul Millerd

The Future of Work

Show Notes

Our guest today is a good friend of mine, Umbrex member Paul Millerd.

Paul has experience at McKinsey and BCG as well as the Board & CEO Advisory Group at Russell Reynolds Associates, one of the top executive recruiting firms in the world.

He currently has a wide portfolio of activities – he is a real Renaissance talent.

He is currently an independent strategy consultant, a career coach, the host of a podcast, Boundless, an active writer who puts out great posts several times a week. He hosts Jeffersonian dinners, he is interested in the gift economy and the future of work, Paul has created a career transition playbook and other course materials including a story course.

In this episode we have a wide ranging discussion covering just a few of Paul’s interests – I encourage you to check out his website and sign up to his mailing list. Visit think-boundless.com

One weekly email with bonus materials and summaries of each new episode:

Will: Hello, Paul. It is great having you on the show.
Paul: Thanks, Will. I am excited to talk to you today.
Will: Today is a bit of a co-branded episode. We’re going to publish this on Unleashed, and we’re also going to publish this on your podcast, Boundless, so listeners of both shows, welcome.
Paul, I learned this question from you, and I love this question. You told me that when you’re meeting people, instead of saying what do you do, you say, “So what is energizing you recently?” I think I got that right, but so, Paul, what is energizing you right now?
Paul: Yeah, definitely, Will. I mean, everybody’s been to the networking party, and you say, “What do you do?” and nobody actually wants to answer that question. Right now, what’s energizing me is actually, like you said, I recently just launched a podcast, and I’m repositioning a lot of the things I’ve done around a new venture, which I’m calling Boundless. It is both an idea and a platform. The idea is that we’re capable of more than we believe, and we hold ourselves back because of our environment, expectations, beliefs. I also want to use the platform just to make sense of what is happening. I think the work force is changing. I’m sure you understand this as an independent professional for a while, and help people navigate the future of work. I mean, that’s just really exciting to me right now, and really looking to sink my teeth into that for 2018.
Will: Beyond the podcast, you say this is a broader platform, what else is going on with Boundless, and this would be for listeners of Unleashed who haven’t heard as much about it.
Paul: Spending a lot of time, I kind of stepped back at the end of 2017 and said, “What do I really enjoy doing? What does energize me?” It came down to three things: content, coaching, and community. That first part, creating content, I do a lot of writing. I like to go really deep in trying to answer these questions: what drives us, how do we do work that matters to us, what motivates us, how do you make sense of a career in a working world that increasingly is harder to make sense of? Really going deep through the writing, podcasting, thinking about doing some video stuff, but really experimenting there.
The second thing is really around coaching. I’ve followed a not very default path. I’ve worked for some great companies. I’ve been really lucky, but I’ve taken unconventional routes or different paths, and I’ve had success making sense of this myself, and I’ve also done career coaching for at least three or four years, so it’s really about helping people navigate that and figuring out what a career means in today’s world.
Then the third thing, like I mention, is the community. I’ve been really thinking about how do you bring together people around this idea, and one thing I did recently was have a Jeffersonian Dinner. Have you heard of this concept?
Will: I have not, and I’m hoping to hear about it right now.
Paul: We actually held it this week in Boston. You have about 8-14 people at a table around a topic, and our topic was radical ideas and people operations, and you have a moderator, and the idea is to have one central conversation, so one person at a time. You’re really focusing on listening. You go deeper. Really try to create those connections and learn from each other and have those connections deeper than you would at just a networking conversation or a typical dinner where you’re just having those side conversations. Those are the things energizing me, and I’m pretty excited for all of this.
Will: Now, you mentioned content. I have seen some of your writing, and I want to get into some particular pieces you’ve written. I found you on Medium. Is that the main place where you’re putting stuff, or where can people find your content?
Paul: Yeah, so definitely writing on Medium and LinkedIn, also just repositioned myself. On my site, it’s think-boundless.com. I put a lot of my writing up there, also just experimenting with different platforms, but yeah, that’s where a lot of the writing is.
Will: The first place people could go would be think-boundless.com.
Paul: Correct.
Will: Okay. That’s hyphen or dot? I’m sorry, so think …
Paul: Hyphen.
Will: Think-boundless.com. Okay.
Paul: Yeah.
Will: Find your writing there, and I really liked your Medium piece, that was one to get into was your media habits. Tim Ferriss talked about this, and that was I think where I got into this and heard the idea of a media diet with his 4-Hour Workweek and eliminating the newspaper. You kind of had a recent post along similar lines where … Well, why don’t you tell us a little bit about that.
Paul: I’ve always loved learning and reading, and I think when I was in college, I really started double down on this and found books that really inspired me. I think Freakonomics was one book that just blew open my brain, and I said, “I love doing this. I need to keep finding books, find people, find articles.” I’ve naturally always gone after the deeper stuff, the long-form stuff, but I think in 2016, everybody probably got caught up in the election, and I found myself more and more paying attention to this day-to-day news of who said what. Did you find yourself in a similar predicable in 2016?
Will: Despite making strong efforts not to, yes.
Paul: Yeah, so for me, I really started to get step back, and I started researching, what are we doing? Why are we paying so much attention to the news? I think I stumbled upon some writing Ryan Holiday did. He kind of exposed how the media is basically hacking our brain to keep us addicted to this content, but I also just starting thinking back. If you think about it, for millions of years, there’s no news. There were just the stories people told each other, and for the past hundred years, we really only had news maybe once a day, maybe a couple times a day, or even just once a week. Now, over the past 20 years, it’s like 24/7. We’re under this impression that people are doing things faster, but humans can only move so fast. I don’t really think it is that faster and crazier.
In 2016, I really started to challenge myself, I need to come up with systems to get back to the deeper stuff that I really enjoy doing.
Will: How have you been trying to very consciously shape your own reading and media consumption habits? Are there things that you’ve, sort of, intentionally avoiding now, and what are you trying to consciously mindfully put in that place?
Paul: I sat down, and I’ve been listening to many of your podcasts, Will, and really love it. You always think in frameworks, so I thought I should try and structure this. I have three steps, it’s block, curate, and then for me, it’s write, and I think the third one can be different for different people, but first, it’s just block the news. That’s deleting the social apps. You can still check it through a browser. Delete the news apps. Don’t watch the news. I don’t watch nightly news. I don’t watch cable news. Also, another, I found tools online like Momentum, which puts up a nice, quote, “screen saver” on your open tab window, and Facebook News Feed Eradicator, which actually just blocks the newsfeed and help me really cut down on a lot of that day-to-day news I was checking.
The second step was about curating. I followed a lot of people, and I think we’re in a, actually amazing time. There’s so much good content out there, but it’s not that easy to find. A to of people have started email newsletters, so I’ve been following people that I really like. I think you shared some links recently of people I also like, like Tyler Cowen has a great blog on Marginal Revolution. I follow Barry Ritholtz on The Big Picture blog. He puts up daily links. I follow Shane Parrish. He has a great blog on Farnam Street. Just finding these people that also want to read good stuff and kind of filtering that so I can go through and go into the stuff that’s more interesting or might stimulate my mind.
Then the third thing I did starting in, I think this was 2016, I started writing a weekly post, what are the top five good reads I found of the week. My hypothesis was that people don’t want to find it, and doing this myself would force myself to basically do the reading and keep me honest and accountable, but actually align my behavior with things I want to do anyway.
Will: Where are you posting that?
Paul: I post that on Medium now, and also just have a mailing list that goes out every Sunday. I don’t ask for anything. I just put it out there and have some followers that keep me honest. It’s every Sunday right to your inbox.
Will: That weekly post, is it just a purely a list of links, or are you giving some of your own commentary, here’s what I found interesting about this article.
Paul: I’ve added a little more comments as I’ve gone with it, I think also as I’m getting better as a writer. Mostly just here is the article, maybe here’s one good quote, or here’s why I found it interesting.
Will: It’s interesting that you found that a useful vehicle. There’s something about committing to a schedule of hitting publish that if you’re doing it, I guess I’ve found, that it, kind of, all of a sudden, you start becoming more aware and looking for ideas and paying more attention to things because you’re saying, “Okay, I got … ” in your case, “I have my Sunday thing coming up. What am I going to put in it?” so during the week, you’re being more alert to things and noticing them more than you might’ve otherwise.
Paul: Yeah. Totally. I’ve had a pretty busy week this week, and I know I have to write the post on Sunday. It’s been at least, I think I’m on the 56th edition-
Will: Whoa.
Paul: … so it’s almost, I mean, it’s a habit at this point, but I know tomorrow I need to dive in and do the reading, which is actually great because I’m looking forward to tomorrow reading. It’s like, “Oh, yeah. There’s some reading time. I get to dive into things.”
Will: That’s cool. Talk to me a little bit about, you have a course. You did a free course on, I think it’s Udemy, U-D-E-M-Y.
Paul: Yeah.
Will: Talk to me about how that happened, and practically, how does one get a course on that site?
Paul: Great question. I have always helped people with their resumes, their careers. I think early on in college, I was the person that would just say, “Let me help you with your resume. Looks like a mess. We gotta save this thing.” Over time, I just did more and more of that. I kind of evolved into people with cover letters, interview prep, and probably have worked with hundreds of people at this point. I think I noticed about five years ago, I was giving the same advice, and people were finding it very valuable, but at the same time, I was getting a little tired of doing that, like I had kind of mastered that and wanted to move on to something more.
Somebody challenged me to create a course, and a lot of times when people challenge me, that’s how I end up taking action. I created a course basically just trying to make sense of what is the approach I teach, and it’s really, I think the resume, it’s a resume course, but it’s a vehicle to try and understand what your story is, what your unique strengths are, what your gifts are you bring out into the world, and thinking about how you can communicate and sell yourself.
I put it out there, created the content. It was kind of a really rough draft version. I created a much of slides as every former McKinsey consultant loves to communicate in and just recorded my voiceover on it. The first version wasn’t great. I wasn’t happy with it. It was kind of nagging at me, and as I become a freelancer last year, I decided the first thing I would work on is just improving the content, better slides, better voiceovers, better takeaways, but it was a fun process. The way I look at it as experimenting with new platforms, the goal is not to be rich or important but just to put it out there and learn. I’ve made it free right now. I used to charge, but I found free, I’m getting a lot of random people reaching out saying this is really helpful so-
Will: That’s awesome.
Paul: … that’s exciting for me, yeah.
Will: How does one get a course on Udemy? Can anybody just sign up and put a course there? Is there some quality control in place, or how does that work?
Paul: I’m pretty sure, I think it’s a relatively low bar. The key is differentiating yourself by how you title the course, sell it, your intro videos you create, but I think anyone can join that, and I think I would encourage everyone to at least create one Udemy course, so challenge for the readers and fellow members of Umbrex, just because I think teaching forces you to learn better-
Will: Absolutely.
Paul: … and it helps you make sense of what you already know.
Will: I saw your course on Udemy. I haven’t actually watched the thing. Do you do a series of short lectures, or practically, what do you actually need to create to put something on there? Are there quizzes? Do you have … How does it work?
Paul: I essentially just wrote down everything I thought about resumes, and then I thought about structuring it into different modules, so I structured it into four modules. The course is very geared toward, you’re probably beyond, you’ve probably past, you could probably test out of the course, Will. Probably don’t need it at this point. But it’s geared towards college students and young professionals, but get around four modules, which is what are the basics; two, how do you think about your strengths; three, how do you think about crafting your story; and then four, how do you bring it all together? It’s geared around that. There’s a couple of exercises people, so I essentially created a couple documents where it said, here are your strengths, write down your stories, and walk them through the process of making sense of that and pulling together the different themes, but also include some templates and pretty actionable stuff they can use.
Will: But it’s not one of these, like Udacity where it’s a problem-set that you do online, gets graded automatically. It’s more like here’s a exercise. Do it, and then go watch the next video. It’s not like a [crosstalk 00:15:54].
Paul: Yeah.
Will: Okay
Paul: Yeah, I can provide feedback. On the strength exercise that I have people do, they submit their strengths. Some people do this. Some people just skip over it because it’s a free course, but I can then add feedback, and everyone who does it, I usually just go in, “Hey, that’s really cool. Can you be more specific?” Just trying to get feedback around those things.
Will: This is really interesting, this idea of creating a course on something that you know. Really, number one, it helps you to think about it and structure your thoughts to learn it better yourself, and it’s a nice way to, if you, for any listener who knows about whatever topic you know about thinking about putting a course together on some platform online, if you are, like facilitate off-sites or do strategy views or budgeting process, putting something on there that’s like a niche topic knowledge, or maybe I’ve heard some other folks who create courses for LinkedIn, which maybe is a little bit higher production value, but thinking about taking what you know, and not just giving a speech, but actually creating a mini course around it.
Paul: Yeah, I would imagine most freelancers, I mean the freelancers I talk to are energized, working on a lot of things. Most have to have at least 10 courses in them. I think it’s an exciting medium. I think what hangs people up is that perfectionist drive of doing something perfect. I would encourage people just to publish, see what happens. You might not get the best feedback, but you’re going to learn a lot, and the next one’s going to be even better. I think that’s the way we have to operate with a lot of these digital platforms.
Will: Well, listers of Unleashed know that perfectionism has not held me back, but let’s talk a little bit about your coaching part. Talk to me about how you find clients and the type of clients you work with. What’s the cycle of that? Would you work with someone for years and years or more around transition, helping someone think about their next step. Just talk to me about that business a little bit.
Paul: I’ve definitely been experimenting with that. If I go back four years ago, I was at a networking meeting, and a met a career coach and shared my, I was kind of scared to share this, but said, “Hey, my dream is to be a career coach one day,” and I talked about all the people I helped. At that point, I had helped like a social worker move in tech. I’d help a math teacher land a research job at McKinsey. I’d help somebody land a job at the White House. She was really excited about some of the stuff I had done, and she just stopped me cold in my tracks and said, “You are a career coach already. You should just think about that and do it.”
After this challenge, I definitely had to take action and just basically built a website, named it careersofpaul.com. It’s not up under that name anymore, but put it up and emailed a hundred people I know and said, “Hey, I’m trying this. I think I have value to offer,” and found a couple clients through that. At first, it was helping people early career with career transition, and then like many things I do, I kind of wanted a different challenge, so I worked with a CEO of a startup and helped her make sense of, what am I trying to achieve, what’re my personal priorities, and where am I focusing in my business. I think I was able to add a lot of value because of that strategy background of saying, “How do you synthesize information, how do you think about focus,” and also just my understanding of business.
I did that. I developed a mini program where I help people take a step back and think about what kind of life do I want to live, and then how do I think about a career in that context? I’ve really been looking at the coaching as a learning vehicle for my consulting and writing work that I do. In every new client I take on, I try to have it be a new type of challenge. I’m not trying to build a coaching empire. It’s a learning vehicle and really a small part of my business that kind of keeps me fresh, but also, I just realized I love doing it, so I’ve tried to spend more time just volunteering with college students, which I probably talk to a few students every week, and I’m part of a few mentoring programs.
Will: How do you frame and get into that piece around what kind of life you want to live? I mean, that’s a pretty big topic. How would you work with a client on broaching that and navigating through that question to help the person find a set of answers?
Paul: Big takeaway for me was nobody asks a lot of people these questions, like what kind of life do you want to live, what matters to you, what are your values? With that, I think we should be talking about more with people. I often ask people, I think I’m very introverted and like to talk about the deeper stuff, so sometimes people don’t react as positively when I toss those questions out, but I think it starts with reflecting and asking those questions, but for me in coaching, it’s really about building that relationship of trust first, so I spend a lot of time just trying to learn about who are you, what drives you?
I think I’m very optimistic, and I see so much potential in people. I have a lot of fun, and I think that when people see that somebody’s going to believe in you and not really point out your weak spots, that they start opening up, they start talking about these things, and it’s really digging deep with a person, it’s brainstorming around those questions, and have definitely been influenced by books like Designing Your Life where that give kind of a structured approach to this, but yeah, I think it really starts with those two things, building that relationship and asking those questions that a lot of people never could ask.
Will: On that career coach piece, would you typically work with someone through a transition? When would they come to you? When they have a job that they want to leave or maybe they’ve been laid off or something, and then you’d work with them through getting their next job, and then that’s the end of the assignment, or how does that business work?
Paul: The way I think about it is I want to be fired. I’m not trying to build a big coaching business. Ideally, the quicker I can be fired as a coach, the more successful I am. Every client I work with, I say, “If you’re not finding value, I want to refund all your money, plus extra money just for the inconvenience.” That’s the frame I start with. I say, “Let’s think about building your skills and capabilities in terms of managing your career and a life such that you don’t need me.”
I know a lot of career coaches have ongoing relationships, and I think there’s value in that too, especially throughout your career, just having a person that continually challenges you, but I think the way I’ve worked, at least so far, has been that, but a lot of my coaching relationships have really turned into personal friendships as well where I’m rooting for these people or they’re following up and rooting for me, so it’s really been a win-win.
Will: That’s great. You said that you’re also doing some consulting. Talk to me a bit about your consulting practice.
Paul: I am really focused around this idea of the future of work. I think organizations don’t do the best job of unleashing our potential. I think a lot about those questions, so I try to focus on work that’s within that domain. I was lucky to work on two really cool projects in 2017. I was working one with professor at MIT, Zeynep Ton who is just somebody I really look up to, a role model, just a really impressive person. She launched a nonprofit called The Good Jobs Institute. It was almost the perfect project. It was a culmination of me being able to use so many different skills, a random assortment of skills I had collected in my career, able to help them launch a website, develop a bunch of consulting tools, which they give away for free.
Their core mission is to help companies thrive by creating good jobs, and they focus on the low wage sector and dispelling the notion that if you’re in a retail setting, you need to pay your frontline workers low wages. She’s proved through operations and taking lean approaches and operations design that you could actually design things such that you can pay people well and be super profitable. She’s studied companies like Trader Joe’s and Mercadona, QuikTrip who have kind of broken that paradigm. That was a project. I was doing a whole bunch of different stuff, and then also worked on a project to help a company identify their cultural values, identify what they’re trying to build in terms of their junior teams, the type of people, the type of behaviors, and a really open-minded head of a small search firm. That was a really fun project.
Will: Paul, you seem to me like someone who’s very thoughtful about your own professional development. Can you talk to me about some things that you’re working on right now and how you structure or plan out your own professional development?
Paul: I’m not the best planner. I think I’d luck out a little. I mean, I am an engineer. I love learning new skills. I love tinkering. I spend a lot of time just doing, and not trying to plan it out too much, so I think as a freelancer, you learn pretty quick that one of the greatest benefits is the projects you do, you often don’t have the full skillset, but it raises the bar such that you have to learn new skills, and definitely experienced that on that Good Jobs Institute project. I had to brush up on some web design skills. I’d taught myself some video editing. I did some graphic design. That was just super fun.
I think for me, I really try to make sure that I’m optimizing around energy, so I often just get very excited about things, and then I go do it. I think with the Udemy course, I didn’t know how to do that, but I was so excited to share what I had created that it raised the bar such that I had to learn new skills. I think that fits for me because I just love learning so much, and I’ve really tried to design my environment around being able to have the time and space to create and just try new things.
Will: How did you get into this whole independence space, Paul? I know you were at, talked to your consulting firm, and then you’ve had a few other things. How did you land in the spot that you’re at now? It sounds like you’re really, have a portfolio of activities that you’re in love with.
Paul: I think for me when I go back to where this started, it actually didn’t start with a job. It started right after business school, and I started feeling really sick. It led to me being chronically ill and basically fighting for my health and really trying to get better over a period of 12-18 months.
I had a really bad case of Lyme disease, and besides the health stuff, which was really brutal, and I mean, anyone who’s dealt with a health thing knows there’s so much uncertainty about am I going to get better? I mean, people will say, “Oh, you’ll get better,” but deep down, you just really don’t know, and that’s tough.
The second thing was I took some time off of work and realized it was so tough for me to lose that connection to a career. I defined myself so much by my resume, the companies I work for, the success I had. I was really, I felt at the start of that upward trajectory of my career right after business school. I realized I identified so much with my career, and it really didn’t matter. I was laying around trying to focus on my health, out of work, and I realized I already had a lot of things that matter to me: friends, freedom, community.
I really started thinking deeper around how to design a life around those things. As I regained health, which I’m so grateful that I did, I started experimenting, like I said, with the career coaching stuff, started writing. I started not being as afraid to put my passion out there in the world and was so surprised. There’s so many positive feedback loops that happen when you do that. It’s so scary to not follow the script, but when you do, it kind of led me on this path, so I’d say my freelance journey started probably three years before with the coaching stuff, the experiments, the writing, and enabled me to take that leap to freelancing in a way that felt just, I think, natural and really just loving it.
Will: Paul, one question I like to ask every guest is what are the two or three books that you have gifted most often?
Paul: Gifted. Yeah, so you sent me this question before, and I struggled with it. I have a list of nine books-
Will: Oh?
Paul: … but-
Will: Well, give us the nine. You don’t-
Paul: No.
Will: … have to cut it down.
Paul: No. Let me start with gifted most. I think gifted most is this book called How Will You Measure Your Life by Clayton Christensen. A lot of the people I know are in the business world, and I just love how he frames living a good life in the context of the business world. One line that really sticks out in that is, “Thinking about being a manager is a really honorable position because you’re serving other people.” At the time when I was in the corporate world, that really changed the game for me and made me focus much more on the people around me and people below me to help build their skills. That’s definitely the gifted most one.
I’ll kick it to you. I have three categories, happy to go through all nine, but I have “what matters,” I have “living a good life,” and then “thinking.”
Will: Let’s hit them all.
Paul: I have three books-
Will: Let’s hit them all.
Paul: … for each of those. All right. First, with thinking, I have three books. One, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Disagree on Politics and Religion. I think this one everyone should read in today’s world, and it really frames how people make their decisions about politics and religion, how that’s tied with morality. Second is Nassim Taleb’s Antifragile. I think Taleb is just a student of history and pulls out so much wisdom from the past. That, I mean, that book is just so dense with some deep knowledge and truths that just have excited forever. The third there is Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin. Big-

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