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How do I work best?

October 21, 2020 • 12:00 PM

It’s incredibly obvious to say, but 2020 has not been a normal year for work. Next year probably won’t be either. So, what do we do about it? How do we stop simply reacting and instead meet the challenges we’re navigating and which are coming in a constructive way? My attempt to answer these questions have me going back to first principles and asking some basic questions of myself.

One of these questions is: “How do I work best?” As I think through this question, I’ve been reflecting back on my experiences and what’s worked well for me in the past and thinking about how they can be applied to the future.

Over the years, I’ve been in a wide variety of working environments. I’ve worked in big teams, small teams, and by myself. I’ve worked in private offices, group areas full of beanbags, my couch at home, and more coffee shops and airplane seats than I can count. For me, it’s not the physical environment that I find myself in that matters most, though it certainly helps. Instead, it’s finding the mental environment and space to focus on the problem at hand.

That means factoring out distractions, being comfortable enough, and concentrating on what I’m doing is what I strive for to be productive.

Sometimes, that means sitting down with a laptop in a café and focusing on writing and re-writing my thoughts as I work through a problem as the world goes by. Other times, it means settling into a beanbag with a code editor and terminal window and iterating through a test-driven loop. There are times that a long walk with a colleague to talk things out works best. And, sometimes it takes getting everybody into the same room — physical or virtual — and spending the time it takes to get everyone to a shared mindset so that a group can crack a problem that no single person can.

I don’t need quiet space to work, though it’s sometimes nice to be in a library-like environment. The background clatter of a café is sometimes a very soothing as well. Music always helps.

When I’m stuck, sometimes I just need to remind myself to put on a good beat and suddenly things start moving again.

When I settle into a good mental space to create within, I can easily handle multiple threads of conversation as long as they’re all related. Multiple threads of conversation about entirely unrelated topics will bounce me out of my zone. Surprisingly, I can thrive in complicated and chaotic communication environments as long as I can I find the connection between all the threads and focus on that to hang all the thoughts from.

I like understanding the entire scope of an issue from the holistic whole to the individual parts. My curiosity leads me to taking things apart and put them back together to understand them. I have a soft spot for building tools to build bigger things. And, when I find a point of friction that can be smoothed out in a way that will pay off over and over again, I am ecstatic.

If I’m working alone for a while, I like to bring the results of my work back in a form that is tangible in some way, whether that’s code that can be run, a document that describes something with supporting information, or a video that tells its story with a narrative feel. If I’m working in a group, I like to work in shared documents, code editors, or whiteboards combined with a free-wheeling discussion by voice to explore the problem space. Helping somebody else solve something is often as rewarding as solving it by myself. I don’t need the credit for every solution, but I love the satisfaction of being able to move forward.

As long as I’m a recognized part of a group that moves things forward, I’m happy.

I want to work with kind and smart people who have a sense of humor and are willing to consider all sides of a problem. People who have strong opinions and the arguments to back them up, but who can synthesize new input and change their opinion to apply a new understanding of the world. I enjoy learning continuously, I don’t mind it at all when I find out that I’m wrong, and I strive to consistently recast my view of the world, always with a mindset bent to growth.

I thrive being in an environment where risk-taking is appreciated, moving forward even as a consensus is developing is encouraged, and where failure is a learning opportunity met with kindness and introspection. Being critical of an idea even as I hold the person presenting that idea in the highest of regard is incredibly important to me.

When I fail to meet my standards, I appreciate being told and given the opportunity to try again.

I love the best parts of California startup culture and mindset, and I miss that living in Germany, yet I need to work in a global environment that understands that there is nuance to every action and decision. My passport is American, my family is in Europe, and my people are all over the place. I want to be in a team that finds working from an office in London or San Francisco is just as natural as from a café in Thessaloniki or a hotel lobby in Singapore.

This is how I work best. Give me a MacBook Pro, a good Internet connection, a set of problems that matter, and the smartest people around to work on them with in code, conversation, and in long-form writing. That’s how I want to work as we go into 2021 and meet all the challenges that are coming.