Feb 3, 2022 • 5M

Know Thy Working Self

Modalities for learning, scheduling, and doing

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Justin Anderson
A podcast about big ideas and bad voice-acting.
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Reader vs. Listener

To improve at anything, we must learn. To learn, we must know how we process information. In Managing Oneself, Peter Drucker claims that most people process information as readers or listeners. Readers process information through their eyes, in silence and alone—with books, wikis, or email newsletters 😉. Listeners process information through their ears—via lectures, conversations, or podcasts. While neither method is better than the other, and this dichotomy is reductive (i.e., I find learning by doing most effective), reading and listening are the most practical means for working with others. If you know how your colleagues learn best, cater to that. To start:

  1. Find out how you learn. Pay attention to your next class or meeting and see how you retain information. If taking notes helps you process, you might be a reader. If listening and asking questions help you connect the dots, you might be a listener.

  2. Ask your colleagues how they learn. If they’re readers, take time to craft clear memos to share status or explain problems. If they’re listeners, schedule time for quick syncs so you can verbalize information and let them ask questions.

I created an audio version of this newsletter to help you discover if you’re a reader or listener. If my annoying, nasally voice doesn’t irritate you, you might be a listener. Let me know what you think in the comments.


Maker vs. Manager vs. Minder

Investor Paul Graham once argued that a maker (such as a software engineer) requires long bouts of uninterrupted time to create valuable work and cannot be incessantly interrupted by a manager (such as a project lead)—whose primary job is orchestrating the activities of others. Cal Newport expanded on this idea, adding a third persona: a minder. This administrative profile (such as an executive assistant) creates value through processing a large volume of small tasks—billing clients or filing reports—and thus requires a different schedule.

While I believe both these thoughts have merit, the ideas ooze an undertone of intellectual superiority and are too theory-heavy to be immediately practical.

The reality is that today’s knowledge worker must balance all three. For instance, a PM might primarily follow a manager schedule of heavy meetings, but they still have maker work, such as writing specs or performing analyses, and aren’t immune from minder work like submitting expense reports or scheduling meetings.

The underlying idea is to 1) recognize the distribution of work on your plate and 2) create a schedule that provides sufficient scheduling for your work profile. Here are some sample schedules:


Warrior vs. Soldier vs. Police

A “marketer” in a year-old, ten-person tech startup will vastly differ from a “marketer” in a fifty-year-old, five-thousand-person Fortune 500 conglomerate. Even other teams may have different expectations for the same role. The organization’s size, scope, and maturity dramatically influence jobs with the same title. Knowing the position you’re in (or interviewing for) can set appropriate expectations for yourself. A simple way to think about these role types is through a curmudgeonly old military metaphor: Warriors, Soldiers, and Police.

  • Warrior roles are highly unstructured, so you’ll have to create stuff from scratch, usually quickly and with minimal resources. You’ll wear many hats. Success metrics might vary from day to day—so get used to shifting goalposts.

  • Soldier roles are about standardizing and scaling. You won’t have to start from scratch, but the process, project, or product you inherit might be sub-scale and messy. Your task is to establish structure to make it resilient to growing business demands.

  • Police roles are highly structured and exist within established organizations. Your job is to maintain the system, define governance, cut costs, enforce policies, drive out inefficiency, and keep the trains running on time.

Most people prefer one of these types—depending on their natural disposition or season of life. A recent college grad might crave a chaotic warrior role because they have the time and energy to devote to it. Or they might prefer a more structured police role to learn the ropes. This same person might desire a soldier role in the future because they can leverage their experience to create scalable processes while avoiding the uncertainty of warrior positions as they build a family.


TL;DR: Don’t treat a police role like a warrior role—you’ll set yourself and your team up for failure. Don’t schedule yourself like a manager if you’re in a maker role—you’ll create more stress than value. Know thy modalities, know thyself.


Junk Drawer

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