How To Memorize A Name

When I was a child I was always proud of my memory. I would be excellent at Pexeso (Memory game) I would never forget my homework or anything else that I was supposed to bring to school to the extent that I from time to time pretended to forget just to be more like the other kids. Then I grew up and something happened. Today I rely so much on modern technology that I’m lazy to remember anything. I’m sure if I made the effort I could revive my ability to remember but I never make the effort as it is not necessary. And it would be so handy, so many new names and faces to remember so many birthdays and passwords. It could be really handy.

My inability to remember names led me to do a bit of research on how our memory works and what can be done about it. When searching on materials on this topic I came across a great book “Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything” written by Joshua Foer. This is not a scientific work but it well researched and written in a style that will keep you interested till the end. And most importantly it will answer all your questions you ever had about memory that you were afraid to ask.

The ancient art

In the ancient Rome and Greece, before the invention of printing press the scholars had one ability we can only envy them today. They were able to remember lots of stuff simply because they didn’t have a choice. The science and popular stories may not be written down and they were handed over from one orator to another one. The great philosophers, artist and scientists of these times had to rely on their memories and they were exceptional good at it. For example, Cicero would not try to memorize his speech word by word but rather topic by topic and associate a vivid image to each of the topics he wanted to cover in his speech and place it in some memorable place (more of this technique below). That was essentially an agenda written in his mind. Something you can try yourself. In fact, I have tried this approach in couple of my speeches and I was satisfied with the results, even though these speeches were only 10-15 minutes long.

The humanity needs

Thousands of years ago our ancestors didn’t have the need to remember much. Essentially they just needed to recognize couple of individuals from their tribe, learn and remember what around them is edible, dangerous and orient themselves in space. From these times our brain evolved a great capacity to remember visual and spatial information.

Our memories don’t follow any sort of logical structure where you would have a linear index that would allow you to access information you have once learned. The information is there somewhere but you don’t have the means to access it. Unless you map the information when storing it in such a way that your brain is able to retrieve it when needed. This is where the visual and spatial memory comes to play. And luckily for you due to human’s brain ability to reorganize itself (neuroplasticity) you can train your brain to remember things you would have never thought possible if you just give it a try and lots of effort.

The memory palace

Memory palace is a 2,500 years old technique (also known as a journey method or a method of loci) that is being used by memory enthusiasts even today and lets them remember incredible amount of data. For example the latest winner of the World Memory Championship was able to memorize 124 random words in five minutes.

How does it work? First you need a place you are really familiar with. For example the street in your neighborhood or your house. Then you create a vivid, colorful picture of the item you want to remember and put it in a distinct place in your house. The more silly the picture the more memorable it will be. For example you want to remember forever what you had for breakfast today (coffee, eggs, bread, and cheese). You can take cup of coffee and make it a pond on your yard and just add some pink ducks swimming in it for fun. Now imagine couple of eggs that are hatching and small dragons coming out of them and put them on your door steps. Let’s hang a loaf of bread, tasty, still warm, and smelling really nice on your door knob and then imagine a loaf of cheese with Mickey Mouse sitting on top of it behind the open door. Everything should be as colorful and memorable as possible. Close your eyes and really imagine you walking to your home and seeing all these things around. The next time you want to remember this menu you just imagine opening the door to your yard and walk home…

I have tried this technique on memorizing twenty completely random and nonsensical data (took me about five minutes to create the memory palace), then I repeated it from memory in an hour, then in the evening and then the day after. At that time I made a note in my calendar to try to remember in a month and forgot about the task. In a month my calendar reminded me to try and remember these twenty things and guess what? I got them all right! Now I’m a believer and I know that if I ever wanted to dedicate my free time to remembering things I could do it.

How to remember a name

Obviously, there are different approaches but one you can try is to associate the sound of person’s name with a visually interesting image. You need a clear, vivid image that you will associate with person’s face and with visual representation of his name. The more weird and silly the image the better as it will just pop into your mind when needed. For example let’s assume you want to remember John Skywalker. As it turns out John is your best friend name and walking in the sky doesn’t take much imagination. So the picture you will try to remember may be John Skywalker holding hands with your best friend walking between stars on the night sky and waving back to you. Sounds silly enough for you to remember. Next time you see his face this picture will pop up in your mind and you will quickly decode what it means.

At least that is the theory. I’ve been trying to use this technique with mixed success so far but as everything in life you need practice. Part of my problem with meeting new people is not related to memory but to paying attention. As most people even I when meeting a new person think ahead what to say instead of paying attention to his name. The practice described above will push you to focus on what the person is saying and give it couple of seconds for remembering his name. There might be an awkward silence for a bit but you can rectify it by explaining of what you just did.

Twitter type summary: “Modern technology makes us forget the ancient art of remembering. It is up to you to change that!”

How is your memory? Have you ever wondered what can you do to improve it? Are there information that you really don’t want to forget? How do you do it?

Originally published at LinkedIn.

Career Coaching 101

In my life as a manager, a leader, and a coach I’ve been frequently asked for help or advice about the next career steps. In my life as an employee I have frequently faced the same questions from myself and not always had a good answers. So what do you do when a team member or a coaching client comes to you and wants a piece of advice? Whatever you do, don’t give it! Each of us has different values and different goals in life. Each of us is at different stage of our careers and due to different skillset have also many different options of what to do.

So instead of providing answers start asking questions. Especially in a coaching relationship it is always a good idea to start with the big picture and talk about the value system, and the non-professional part of life to ensure that the work piece fits nicely with the rest. To guide you through the career coaching session let me share couple of questions that may get you started.

Who are you in your professional life?

It is good to define who the person is in his professional life and who he wants to be. It should provide high-level framework for the rest of the discussion.

  • What are the things you like in your work? And why? (You have to ask this but don’t expect any deep thoughts, it is essentially an ice breaker.)
  • What are your strengths? (Forget about weaknesses.)
  • Why do you work? What is your motivation? (And don’t say money, dig a bit deeper here so you find the real drivers.)
  • What are the skills you are learning and you want to learn? (Most people have some things they would really like to learn and usually there is a deeper reason behind.)
  • What are the skills you need to learn? (Most likely set of skills you are missing to outperform at your current level in your current job.)
  • What is your dream job and why? (This may lead back to values and should help to identify whether the person is actually in the right field and shouldn’t make a bigger change to be happy.)
  • When was the last time you were “in the flow” and what were you doing? (You dig deeper here to understand what are the things that make this person go above and beyond.)

I personally just love asking these two questions. In fact I love them so much that I tend to ask them even in interviews when search for leadership potential. I believe that because they require a very succinct answer they push the person to think a lot about who he really is and possibly who he wants to or how he wants to be seen in his professional life

  • What is the mission of your professional life?
  • How would you describe yourself on twitter (140 characters or less)?

To give you example I just returned from my Philippine mission back to Europe and found many new faces in the office. Instead of giving these new team members the whole story of my life I decided to make it twitter like “I’m the guy who builds offices and grows people” (in fact only 47 characters including spaces). This essentially sums up the last six years of my professional life and that is how I see myself and would hope that others would see me today. Is it how I want to be seen for the rest of my life? Most likely no and when I get tired of this particular picture of myself I will come up with a new “mission” and then will try to find a job that will fit this new image of myself.

How are you seen by others?

You need a sanity check so answering this question would really help and to make sure you get an honest picture you probably want to ask around for some feedback

  • What feedback do you have from others?
  • How are you seen by your bosses, peers, subordinates, and partners?
  • What are the things they are saying that are not in-line with what you believe about yourself?

What do you keep and what do you lose?

Now, let us talk about what aspects of your job you want to keep and what you want to get rid of. For example, I hate dealing with bureaucracy so I would try to set my job in such a way that I don’t need to deal with it too much. Or I just love working with people so whatever my next gig is it has to have a strong aspect of working with others.

  • What are the key aspects of your work you want to keep?
  • What are the key aspects of your work you want to change?
  • What is standing in your way to get your dream job? Any skill gap? And if yes, how do you plan to tackle it?

What is out there?

The philosophical part is behind us and now to a real field work. These questions are just to guide a person but most likely cannot be answered in the first coaching session. It can be a good idea to ask the person to do his homework and research a bit what is happening around him. Starting with how his colleagues work. Why are some of them happy, what drives them, what are the opportunities inside the company and what is the situation on the job market? Depending on the results of this search you can continue with some of these

  • What realistic opportunities are out there for me? (The key word is “realistic”. If you are a fresh manager with two months under your belt you can hardly expect to get a fancy job of a director responsible for bunch of teams around the world. At the same time don’t let the titles fool you. Each company has a unique way how it is structured and depending on company culture, size, and maturity the titles may vary quite a bit. So instead on headlines focus on job descriptions.
  • What can you do to increase the number of these opportunities? (Would training help? Contacts? International experience? Etc.)
  • How can you learn about them? (Do you need to do something proactively?)
  • How can you let others know that you are a suitable candidate for these roles? (Be creative and think long-term. Do you join some professional association? Do you start answering questions on some industry related public forum? Do you seek opportunities to help out your colleagues or people from other departments? Do you start building a network of contacts within your industry?)

How do you select the right opportunity?

At this stage you should have a pretty clear picture about what is out there, what your values and skills are and what positions you believe are a mutual match. The worst thing at this stage that can happen is to have more than one option to choose from.

  • What are the key criteria to help you decide what is the right opportunity?
  • What are the things you are willing to sacrifice in case of really interesting opportunity? (And believe me you need to be able to make sacrifices. There is nothing on this world as a perfect job. At least not at the beginning. To have a perfect job you need to step into one that is relatively close and then mold it and let it mold you in such a way that one day you find you and your job be the best friends)
  • Who will I ask for an opinion? Who are the people I trust to give me a good advice? (This one might be important question. Who are the people impacted by your decision so you want to give them a chance to voice their thoughts? Who are the people you value for their wisdom and life experience? Just remember at the end of the day it is your decision and you will have to live with consequences.)
  • How will I know I made the right decision? (You won’t until you make the choice and live it out. It might be a good idea however to have some sort of success criteria defined that you can consult in couple of months to see whether the change you made had the effect you desired.)

How do I start?

If your coaching session wasn’t just a theoretical exercise but you want a real change then it is important to define some plan and the first steps to get things moving

  • How well are you prepared for job interviews? What can you do to improve?
  • What are the first steps you need to take?
  • What are the results so far and how can you improve them?

Twitter type summary: “To help others find their place in the world you need to be unbiased and ask the right questions that will struck deep into who they are.”

What are your favorite questions you use to stimulate others to plan their career? Are there questions you would never ask? Original article posted at LinkedIn.

Your Heart Is Not In It Anymore

You have a great job, excellent team around you, you do what you love, but still something feels wrong. You cannot really pinpoint what exactly it is. You start questioning whether the things you do make sense, whether you are really using all what you’ve got and you don’t feel as enthusiastic about stuff as in the past. I found myself recently exactly in that situation and when talking with one person I respect, she said “Tomas, I feel your heart is not in it anymore.”

This made me pause. I love my job. I’m proud on what I have built and I enjoy immensely working with the great team around me. But I realized that she is right. Something inside me that was driving me in the past somehow disappeared and I felt that to get it back I need to do something. To do something new and exciting that will allow me to light the fire within me again. It also made me think about what you could do to make sure your team doesn’t feel the same way.

How you keep your top talent engaged?

  1. Keep them learning – most of us like learning. It started when we were born and made our first small steps and it continuous throughout our lives. Some of us are really hungry for knowledge and some of us just like from time to time to realize that we progressed a bit and our knowledge of the world is a bit better than it was a year ago. Make sure you supply the right amount of learning opportunity to each of your team members
  2. Keep them proud – create an environment where people are really proud on what they do. When your team talks about the company and what they are doing even outside of work. When they boast to their family and friends about the work environment, the project and the team spirit then it will create a feedback loop as their friends and family will keep them reminding how lucky they are to have such a great job
  3. Keep them informed – being open and transparent about what is happening in the company, on the market, and in the team works like a marvel on most of us. We like to feel that we know what is happening in the world around us and feel hopeless and dissatisfied when we are surprised and feeling out of control
  4. Keep them appreciated – make sure people on your team know how good job they are doing. Chances are that you have a great team, you need them, they deliver lots of value to the company but you keep forgetting to let them know that you know. The important thing is to recognize and appreciate even the day to day achievements. Don’t wait for a big thank you once a year when the project ends and you distribute bonuses
  5. Let them own stuff – building a sense of ownership is one of the easiest way how to keep your team together. The really good people on your team care deeply about what they do, about the project, the team, the company and if they feel directly responsible it will be more difficult for them to walk away and it will keep them engaged.
  6. Move them around – we all get eventually tired if we do the same thing over and over again regardless how much we initially loved it. To get some change into our lives is good even for those who prefer a stable environment. Do you have a guy on the project for five years? Even if he says he likes what he is doing at some point his inner fire burns out and it will be too late to save him.

How do you reignite the fire?

  1. Consider their value – how much value they bring and could bring to the team, to the project and to the company? Consider not just what they do today but also what potential they have for the future. The biggest loss for the company is usually not today’s top performer but the future top performer. These are also the people who often leave the company without anyone shedding a tear and because of their potential they will have a great success somewhere else. And if the amount of effort it would take to reignite the fire in the employee is bigger than the value they bring and could bring then it might be easier to let them find their spark somewhere else
  2. Show you care – how? Talk to them. Being willing to spend time with your team and talk not just about work but to talk to them as to other human beings goes a long way. If you show respect and understanding people will get more excited to show up the next morning in the office as they will feel important and not just a small anonymous clog in a big machine. They will feel that you really care and don’t look at them just as a number in an excel spreadsheet
  3. Find out what makes them tick – each of us is different and so each of us gets excited by different things. For someone it is a learning opportunity, for someone else career growth, being surrounded by great team, relaxed environment, being useful, doing something that matters, or a getting a nice paycheck. Make sure you find out what is really important for each individual on your team and then make sure you satisfy that need
  4. Show how they can contribute – make sure that they not only understand you care but also you show them all the options and opportunities they have with you as an employer. There are very few companies where things would be status quo forever. In most companies whether they are growing or slowly dying there are new opportunities popping up all the time so it is just a question of recognizing them and sending them to the right people
  5. Take risks – offer them something significantly different, at least for a little while. Do you have a software developer who just doesn’t feel so enthusiastic about his work? Would moving him to another project solve the problem? And if not what about offering him a training and let him do technical support for half a year? Maybe it will give him a chance to look at things from different perspective and reignite the fire within and desire to come back to coding. Or maybe he will find a new calling in serving the customers. Regardless of the outcome you were able to keep someone valuable in the company.
  6. Be fast – act really fast. You need to be able to move within weeks. If you have someone on the team who is visibly checked out and he is your former top guy you need talk to him to explore other opportunity and you need to act to keep his focus on your company and get him excited again. And if someone tells you that it is not possible to let this guy change project in the next half a year until it gets released then he is wrong. The employee can come tomorrow with a notice that he is leaving the company so trying to act like nothing is happening is wasted opportunity.

And what did at the end reignite the fire in me? A small handwritten thank you note from a person with great potential saying that a small gesture I did opened doors to her that she never knew even existed. With this note, and considering my life values, came a realization that when you do what you love, with great people you trust around you, and you build something great for others to use, you live a pretty damn good life. And this realization fills you with energy and fire like nothing else.

Twitter type summary: “The top performers have the fire within that keeps fueling their desire to get the job done. Make sure it keeps on burning.”

How do you keep the fire burning? How do you ensure your team really cares and keeps engaged?

Originally posted at LinkedIn.

Coaching 101: What To Ask?

Once upon a time I wrote an article on Coaching Approach To Leading People. Since then I shared many additional thoughts on how to lead but not that many on how to coach. So let me rectify this today with a basics of a successful coaching dialog. For you to be a successful coach you need to spend majority of the time listening and only minimum talking. At the heart of coaching is the idea that people have the resources to help themselves and you as a coach just need to trigger this hidden power. The best coaching session is the one where at the end your client gets up with a clear mind and objectives that he owns because they came from his or her heart. To get you started let me share couple of coaching questions that are always a great first move. Keep in mind that you want to stimulate discussion and you don’t want one word answers so make sure you ask open ended questions.

1. What do you want?

Before you start working on something you need to understand what it is you want to get at the end. And if you are getting coached for it then it means spending significant resources so you better be sure about what and especially why.

  • What is it you want and why do you want it? (Usually people have a good idea of what they want but very often the “why” gets the confused. You may come to me and ask you want to figure out how to get more money. If I ask you why you will probably say “so I can buy stuff”. So why do you need to buy stuff? It feels good to have a new car. Why does it feel good? Why a new car and not something else? etc. Digging into the “why” can totally change the direction and end up in another “what”. Maybe instead of wanting more money the person wants to be valued by others. And maybe there are other ways how to achieve it, ways that will be closer to the person’s abilities and desires.)
  • Is it positive? (This one may not be so obvious but it is important. If you want to motivate person and especially if you want to see positive change, new behavior and positive outcome then also the goal needs to be formulated in a positive way. For example “I don’t want to feel miserable.” Nice sentiment, but it doesn’t really answer the question what do you want. It just states what you don’t want. “I want to be happy” is much more positive though you may still need to dig deeper to figure out what “being happy” actually means for that person.)
  • Is it under your control? (Make sure your goals are achievable and under your control. There is very little sense of coming up with a goal that sounds great but assumes other people to do it for you. You would feel helpless, things could go in any way and you have no way to influence the direction or quality of the execution. Whatever your goal is it needs to be under your direct control. For example “I don’t want others to yell at me,” is a nice goal but is your boss yelling at you under your control? Not really. So try instead “I want to make it easy for others to treat me with respect.” You still cannot influence how others will behave but you can exhibit a behavior that will make it easy for others to treat you with respect and don’t yell at you.)
  • Is it aligned with your other goals? (“I want to live alone on a tropical island” is a great goal but how does it fit with your other life goals of having a family, thousands of friends, party every night and go skiing every weekend? You should always do a sanity check to ensure that the goal you want to achieve won’t have disruptive effect on your other goals and on the goals of those around you that you hold dear.)

2. How will you get it?

Now, since we know what you want we can start talking about how you get it. The goal of these questions is to identify what resources you need and how to get you started.

  • Who do you need to ask for help? (Is it really completely under your control or are there some areas where help would be welcomed? Would a chat with your spouse or your boss help you achieving those goals?)
  • Do you need any resources you don’t have today? (Do you need to buy something as a prerequisite to achieving your goal? Do you need a specific time and place to be in?)
  • What is your first step? (How you get started? What is the first step you need to take and when will you take it? And be SMART about it, or better read this article on how to define a good goal SMART Goals Are Not Good Enough.)

3. How will you commit?

Now comes the hard part. Especially for long-term goals the challenge you will face is not how to get started but how to keep going.

  • Is there anything that may prevent you from getting it? (There might be competing priorities, you might get bored, you may need support of others)
  • If yes, how will you mitigate this risk? (Have a plan for these eventualities so when they occur they don’t stop you dead in your tracks but you are ready to deal with them and push forward)
  • What other ways of getting it could work? (Have you thought about other ways how to achieve your goal that may not be so straightforward at the beginning. “You want to learn a foreign language” so you decided to “study every weekend for two hours and enroll for a lesson at local language school”. What about living abroad for a half a year? What about finding a girlfriend or boyfriend who speaks the language? There are always many options so make sure you consider what is out there before you commit to sub-optimal solution.)
  • How do you rely on others and what are the consequences for them? (We talked about who you need to help you and you have a plan to deal with drawbacks in case they are not able or willing to help. Now comes the other side. You achieving your goal and “live on a remote tropical island” will without doubt affect other people around you. Are you comfortable with that impact on your family and friends? How can you ensure you limit that impact? How will you feel about your decision in couple of months? This one is really tricky as we cannot really predict how we will feel in the future. For the reasons why, check this post Human Brain, The Biggest Liar Of All Times.)

4. How do you recognize you succeeded?

And the best at the end. If you set a goal you also need to be able to measure somehow that you reached the goal. Aside of the fact that you might be curious you also want to feel good about finishing your goals and how can you feel good about finishing when you don’t know you finished?

  • How will you track your progress? (You probably need some way how to see you are still on track to achieving your goals. Do you need a weekly follow up? Do you need a measurable small steps? Do you need a feedback from others?)
  • How will you ensure to keep your momentum? (There will be bumps on the road so how do you ensure you don’t lose the momentum? When you check your progress and you discover you are slowing down how will you reenergize yourself to push forward?)
  • How will you recognize you succeeded and achieved your goal? (How will you know you are there? “I want to learn Spanish” is a great goal but what exactly does it mean? Unless you set a clear success criteria you may never get there as it is unlikely you will ever speak like a native speaker. “I will know that I speak Spanish when I take a week vacations in Barcelona and will be able to get around, order dinner, go to the movies and speak with locals without a need to have a translator.” This is still a tall order but at least it is something you can do to verify you succeeded. For me personally the moment I considered as me being able to speak English was the moment when I stopped translating everything in my head and started to think in that language.
  • How will you celebrate your success? (Have a plan for celebration. Why? It can act as an additional motivating factor if the way you celebrate is directly related to the goal. “When I learn Spanish I will go for two weeks vacations in South America which is my lifelong dream.”

That’s it. Pretty straightforward. Most of the difficulties will be at the very beginning trying to define what the person really wants. If your client has troubles with identifying his needs and wants then you may help him out by guiding him through the Life Balance Wheel exercise to get them started.

Twitter type summary: “As a coach you don’t talk. You just listen and when required you ask questions to stimulate your clients thinking process.”

What are your favorite coaching questions? Is there something you would never ask and is there the one question that always makes the difference?

Originally posted at LinkedIn.