Working With People, 80/20 Style

Van Gogh, "Olive Trees with Yellow Sky and Sun," Minneapolis Institute of Art. Close up.

Van Gogh, "Olive Trees with Yellow Sky and Sun," Minneapolis Institute of Art. Close up.

In a recent trip to Barnes and Noble, where I love to aimlessly browse through books, I was drawn to the section on business management and start-up ventures. A fan of Shark Tank, I picked up Robert Herjavec’s book You Don’t Have to be a Shark: Creating Your Own Success and thumbed through to a chapter on the 80/20 rule. The 80/20 rule is a mathematical principle that Herjavec describes this way:

Eighty percent of the effects of any activity comes from 20 percent of the cause.

Or, put another way:

Eighty percent of a company’s business is made from 20 percent of its customers.

Right now the 80/20 Rule is hip. Thumb through any food or fitness magazine and you'll see the 80/20 Rule applied to anything from eating in moderation (focus on what you're eating 80% of the time; don't worry about the 20%) to exercise (80% of your results comes from the 20% that you do). 

But I want to apply the 80/20 Rule to working with people.

Earlier in Herjavec’s book, he wrote that while working as a bill collector, he realized that 20% of people would never pay their debts, so he focused on the 80% who would.

Lightbulb moment: focus your energies on the 80% of what you can accomplish and who you can accomplish it with

So what does Herjavec's story have to do with my life?

You see, a large part of my job is working with people. As a professor, I teach over a hundred of students a semester, I work in a department with over thirty instructional staff and faculty members, I am part of a campus with over 10,000 students and hundreds of employees, and I attend conferences where 300-3,000 other academics attend. Needless to say, I’m around people all the time. And part of my job is to win people over to my point of view: whether that’s teaching freshmen about the importance of writing, or explaining to faculty members how to more effectively teach and grade writing, or talking with department colleagues about an improved grading method.

Focus your efforts on the 80%
Herjavec’s point about focusing on the 80% was an important reminder for me. When time and energy is short, I need to focus my efforts on the 80% of people who I can shape and influence—the willing 80%. In the classroom, this translates into those who take my feedback seriously, those who come to my office hours, and those who are hard workers. As a colleague, this means finding people on campus who want to be my ally, who want to share teaching techniques, and who want to discuss research. 

Don't get discouraged by the 20%
Herjavec could have easily let the 20% who wouldn't pay their bills frustrate him. He could have also let the 20% color his perspective about how good he was at his job. But he didn't. He took the long view: he won't be able to collect 100% of accounts. And that's okay. What does this look like for me? Well, I often expend my energies on the resistant ones: the ones who aren’t sold on writing or communication, or the ones who aren’t sold on writing and communication from my point of view. And I often get discouraged by the 20%. But, instead of letting the 20% get me discouraged, I need to focus my gaze on the 80%. 

As a teacher who loves teaching, I will always be drawn to the tough cases—the students who don’t want to be in my classes and the faculty who aren’t interested in my perspective about writing and communication. And that’s okay. I don’t need to convert everyone. I can’t convert everyone. And maybe I’m not the person to convert them. Focusing my efforts on the 20% means I’m going to get burned out expending my energy, time, and emotions on people who aren’t interested. Instead, I need to save the best of me for the 80% who want my help and knowledge and let go of the 20% who don’t.


Let's connect! I'd love to hear how you're applying the 80/20 Rule to your life to increase productivity, motivation, and happiness. I'm @GeneseaC on Twitter and @CattingWithAlice on Instagram.  

Finding Your Best (Productive and Motivated) Self

Monet, "Grainstack, Sun in the Midst," Minneapolis Institute of Art. 

Monet, "Grainstack, Sun in the Midst," Minneapolis Institute of Art. 

One of the things I’ve learned about being as career-driven as I am, is that I need to refine my personal productivity. Being productive, for me anyways, means either getting the time to work on articles and conference presentations or getting the time to discover who I am and who I want to be. You know—the kind of work that gives you meaning, satisfaction, and joy. My intellectual and personal happiness means having time to research, read, write, and think.

But how do I harness the best time of the day or time in my week to be productive?

When I was working on my dissertation, my university’s graduate academic support center offered dissertation and thesis boot camps. Basically, a graduate student would sign up for a 40 hour a week commitment or a 20 hour commitment on the weekends with the goal of getting as much research and writing completed. In order to keep the motivation going, the boot camp staff had short writing activities at the beginning and end of the day, and staff were always available to discuss ideas, look at drafts, or troubleshoot. I signed up for seven of these week-long boot camps—the most boot camps anyone had followed through with at the university. And I learned four important things about myself that significantly impacted my productivity, and, as a result, made me a happier writer and thinker:

1. Although I’m a night person, I did my best thinking and writing from 9:00am to noon. Regardless of how hard it was to get out of bed to be on campus by 8:00am, and regardless of how many times I silently asked myself how I was going to get through the day, I always had my best ideas and most productive writing before lunch.

2. Developing the habit of journaling my tasks before starting the morning and after finishing the day helped me process my work. In the morning, I wrote down what I wanted to accomplish that day, or at least by lunch time, and then at the end of the day, I reflected on what I accomplished as a way to celebrate what was accomplished (a sure-fire way to stay motivated) as well as note what new questions or ideas emerged.

3. I learned to multi-task between multiple projects when my brain was tired. While the boot camp organizers didn’t want us to fill up the time with checking email, grading students’ assignments (if we were teaching assistants), or doing research for professors (if we were research assistants), they encouraged us to have multiple back-up assignments in case we got stuck or bored of the dissertation or thesis work. So, I would come prepared, each day, with at least three different kinds of projects I could work on to cycle through if I felt bored or stymied in my dissertation work. Having multiple projects to work on allowed me to treat each boot camp like the 40 hour a week job that it was. I don’t think I’ve been as productive since.

4. Being in a space with people focused on the same kind of goal—a steel will to complete as much work as possible—kept me motivated. There’s something about being in a space with 10-15 other people who are all wanted the same thing: to be productive. There’s a buzzing energy that happens in this kind of space. Coffee shops and collaborative workspaces provide similar kinds of energy, which is why aside from writing my dissertation during the boot camps, I lived at one coffee shop, Satellite Coffee on Carlisle and Central, the rest of the time. That particular coffee shop was a satellite office for many professionals, and over hearing the work meetings or phone interviews or seeing the projects people were working on also kept me motivated. 

My current challenge is replicating those ways in which I’m most productive. Because I teach in the morning, and because I’m still a night person, I’ve found it impossible to wake-up at 5:00am or 6:00am to have time to write. And I also haven’t found a coffee shop that provides the motivational and productivity buzz that was at Satellite Coffee. But my goal is, each and every day, to try to make it happen. And maybe finding that productive space is a never-ending battle. But I’d really like to find that sweet spot, once again, that I had in writing boot camp and at Satellite Coffee. And every day I’ll continue to look for it. 


Let's talk! What roadblock are you dealing with right now? Or, what did it take to get to know yourself enough to know when you'd be most motivated and productive? Let's connect on Twitter @GeneseaC or on Instagram @CattingWithAlice.

How to Update Your Personal Brand Without Losing Your Mind

Tikal, Guatemala

Tikal, Guatemala

We are CEOs of our own companies: Me Inc. To be in business today, our most important job is to be head marketer for the brand called You.
— Tom Peters, “The Brand Called You"

This post is about personal branding, but I take a different route to get there: from the academic’s perspective on publishing. Publishing is part of our job, and we’re expected to do it. And publishing is like sending out into the world a 30-page article or 300-page book full of SEO keywords—through the sources we use, the stories we tell, the analysis we do. Everything we publish essentially becomes a SEO list of who we are as researchers, teachers, and citizens. Our personal brands helps get us jobs, grants, speaking engagements, consulting gigs, and the like. 

So what happens when an academic (ahem, me) realizes that s/he has to re-evaluate her/his brand? And what happens when that realization is painful because maybe, just maybe, s/he doesn’t want to change? Well, that’s my story.

Early in the month of May, I met with a colleague, who I greatly respect and admire, to talk about my academic identity and career trajectory. After a long and productive conversation, he asked me if I wanted the truth. Of course I did. (Maybe?) Then I learned that, somehow, my publications and conference presentations might be marketing me as not-as-hip. From his perspective, if I wanted more career movement, I needed to explore the hot stuff. The popular stuff. 

Hip: technology, design, networks, systems, robots, ecosystems, objects (which I wasn’t excited about).

Not-as-hip: discourse communities, literacy, discourse analysis, genre theory (what I was excited about).

I won’t deny it: a part of me crumbled when I heard I wasn’t hip. I didn’t not want to be hip. It stung. But it stung me into action. 

As an early career Assistant Professor, I know that I have to shape my brand. And I also know that the personal brand that I have also impacts the job opportunities I’ll have. Sure, I am getting articles published that didn’t incorporate the hip theories—which means that people don’t necessarily have to be using hip theory to get published—but getting my colleague’s perspective gave me pause. It gave me another perspective of how I was viewed in academia. And that is really useful information.

Yes, I could have taken my colleague’s perspective with a grain of salt. And, yes, I could have written him off. But I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to let his perspective inspire me to grow as a thinker, teacher, researcher, and writer. I used his perspective to pivot.

sometimes the greatest moments of insight happen when other people tell us what we don’t want to hear about ourselves. And it might sting. 

we shouldn't get defensive and retreat.

Instead, we need to use that insight to move us into deeper inquiry and exploration.

So here’s what I like to call the “Genesea 3.0” upgrade, which happened over the course of a few months:

Embrace Feeling Stuck
Yes, I shed a few tears of frustration. Yes, I felt stuck and overwhelmed. Yes, I felt conflicted about whether or not I should take my colleague’s advice. So I sat with those feelings and let them be. 

Explore the Hip Stuff
After I stopped feeling so sensitive, I read as many books and articles on the hip topics—postcomposition, post humanism, systems theory, Actor-Network Theory—to get a baseline understanding of what the excitement was all about. Sure, it was challenging. I was learning new content that had been off my radar completely. And it was mentally exhausting, illustrated in this Facebook update I made when I was in the thick of it: “I read three words by Bruno Latour and promptly had to take a nap.” (Which is true.)

Talk it out with People Who Know   
When I attended a Computers and Writing conference the end of May, I knew many of the attendees would be be able to fill the theoretical gaps for me. So during social events I mustered the gumption to ask fellow attendees (and mostly strangers) if they would explain to me the importance of the hip theory. Because I’m a questioner, I asked “why...?” a lot. And they were cool with that. Talking with friendly academics who were happy to help me through my confusion made all the difference. I don’t think I would have been  as willing to explore a different personal brand without their insight. 

Return to the Material
During the month of June, I picked up the books and articles again. They were easier to read at this point. And the concepts were starting to make sense—and even applicable to what I was already teaching in my classes and exploring in my research. But the crux of my shift was being able identify small nuggets of content that made sense—a word, a phrase, a sentence or two. My thought process went something like this: Okay…human agency, technology and objects, power, unstable and fragmented, beings being shared…these are things that make sense. I think I might get it. Eventually.

Look for Common Threads
While hashing this out with another colleague, he explained that my beloved concepts and frameworks weren’t dead, per se. But they have evolved to include how technology and humanity interact. Looking at it from that angle, it was easier to see the common threads between my not-so-hip theory and the hip theory: both are about relationships, communication situations, and audiences. But the hip theory includes technology a central part of the conversation, which makes sense given the technoworld that we live in. So, upon seeing the common threads, I knew that updating my personal brand was a smart move: I’ve learned new concepts that will positively impact my teaching and research, and I’ve embraced the personal brand pivot that comes with insight and inquiry. And that’s the kind of person I want to be.

Thinking about re-branding your “Me, Inc.”? Here are four steps to get you started with process:  

1. Ask your yourself who you want to be and why.   

2. Does that new you require a brand pivot? 

3. Be open to change by looking for common threads between your existing self and what's hip. You might want to journal the connections or do a mind dump brainstorming activity. 

4. Be patient with yourself. You don’t have to change overnight. 


Let’s talk! What’s been your experience pivoting your Me, Inc.? Or how do you know when it’s time to update your personal brand? Let’s connect on Twitter @GeneseaC and on Instagram @CattingWithAlice. 


Why College Grads Struggle with Workplace Writing. (Hint: it’s not because they’re lazy. Or because they text.)

Xunantunich, Belize

Xunantunich, Belize

For the last five years, I’ve been teaching various equivalents of Business Writing, typically an upper-division writing course in which students from across various disciplines learn how to write job documents, reports, memos, emails, proposals, and the like. Business Writing is quite a useful class: as the New York Times reported in 2013, job candidates’ written and oral communication skills aren’t up to snuff. And, in 2016, the issue is still the same. (But, just so you know, “college students can’t write” has been a complaint of professors and professionals since the late 1800s.) 

College graduates—plain and simple—need better workplace writing skills.  And I’d go so far as to say it’s not entirely their fault if they don’t have them.  

Would it surprise you if I said that many sophomores, juniors, and seniors don’t know what genres and styles of writing they’ll be doing in their majors and fields? Would it also surprise you if I said that many professors and professionals are uncomfortable with teaching writing to their students or talking about writing with their employees and interns? 

This is something that I always kinda knew from my years in academia. But the realization really struck me when I recently assigned a group proposal to my Business Writing classes in which fifty students investigated writing in their fields. This six-week project was deliberately assigned as the first project of the semester because I wanted to start the semester with what I consider the most important content of my class: first, students need to learn how to research the kinds of writing styles and genres that are valued in their fields. Second, students need to learn how to adapt existing communication skills to the styles and genres required of them in their fields.   

As part of the project, students individually interviewed subject matter experts, researched what kinds of writing are valued in their fields, and then developed recommendations and strategies for how to improve upon writing instruction within their programs of study.

The eye-opening bit came after students interviewed their subject matter experts (who could include program directors, professors, or internship supervisors). I provided students with a template of interview questions which ranged from “Do you teach writing in your classes? Why or why not?” to “What kinds of writing genres or writing styles do you think students should learn while in college?” This interview wasn’t meant to judge the interviewees’ experiences or teaching practices; it was meant to enlighten students about their supervisors, mentors, and professors’ experiences with writing. Students need to know where their subject matter experts are coming from to better understand how writing is valued, discussed, and taught within their programs, professions, and industries.

Interestingly, students reported to me that their subject matter experts had either not been taught how to write for the industry—you know, the nuts and bolts of the writing process—or they were unsure of how to teach or talk about writing. It didn’t matter how many conference presentations they had given or how many years they had worked in the industry; they just didn’t know what to do when faced with student writing. Many subject matter experts even said that they didn’t think they were good writers, so they were hesitant to discuss writing in the classroom or in the workplace.

Based on what my students told me, here are four general observations:

1. Professionals aren’t often trained how to talk about the ways in which written communication functions in a particular industry.

2. Professionals may believe that students/employees learn through implicit instruction: that if people read enough examples, they will learn how to write.

3. Professionals might be lacking confidence. Because they weren’t taught how to write, they might believe they don’t know how to teach writing or talk about writing. (And they also might think their own writing is terrible.) 

4. Isn’t it the English department’s job to teach writing?

Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was. How do my colleagues and peers go from being expert communicators in their own fields to being unsure of how to apply that knowledge to the writing of their students and entry-level employees?

Well, two points here: first, just because someone gets a degree and/or is a teacher, doesn’t mean that person knows how to teach writing. And, second, writing instruction should be explicit. This means that professors and professionals need to be able to explain writing strategies, research methods, and task expectations to their students and entry-level employees. 

Perhaps I should return to point #4: isn’t it the English department’s job to teach writing? Maybe. Maybe not. But what I can tell you is that people don’t learn how to become top-notch writers or communicators with a few freshmen English classes and one Business Writing class. Writing is a process that must be continually practiced. Without that practice, the writing process becomes increasingly difficult. 

But back to my students. Over the course of six weeks, students realized that many professors and professionals need more support when it comes to talking about or teaching disciplinary-specific writing. And proposals included recommendations that ranged from developing field-specific writing courses to providing faculty with professional development opportunities. While I was hunkered down reading students’ proposals, I realized that I missed a huge opportunity with this assignment. I should have required students to submit their proposals to their interviewees and program directors, similarly to how unsolicited proposals work in the workplace. In effect, I fell into the same trap that my students had discovered: I failed to share with my across-campus colleagues recommendations that could help their students become better writers. 

I know my colleagues and peers are talented people. They know how to communicate. And they know what kinds of writing their students, interns, and entry-level employees will be doing in their industries. We just need to team up—professionals and writing specialists—to help make sure students are ready to write when they get on the job.   

Guess what I’m doing next semester. Yep. I’m going to require my Business Writers to submit their proposals to their program directors and whomever else they interviewed. Because these conversations need to happen. And it’s my obligation to make sure that they do. 


Let’s talk! What’s been your experiencing with writing in the workplace? Or what do you wish you knew about communication as a college student and entry-level employee? Let’s connect on Twitter @GeneseaC and on Instagram @CattingWithAlice. 

On Being a Questioner; Or, How Gretchen Rubin’s Four Tendencies Helped Me Better Understand Myself and Others

Caye Caulker, Belize

Caye Caulker, Belize

My mom used to tell us kids when we were growing up “if you are unsure about something, you need to ask.” It was a statement she repeated to us quite a bit, as I’m sure she wanted us to check in with her before doing something we didn’t really know how to do—like use the blender or fry an egg—but I’m equally sure that her statement intended to save her time from cleaning up our messes and mishaps. As a compliant firstborn who took all instruction to heart, I was always comfortable asking a lot of questions even when I didn’t need to simply because I didn’t want to get it wrong. Questioning myself (and others) has it downfalls, in that either (a) I can come across as challenging others’ judgements if I ask too many questions, and (b) I need to make sure that by asking questions, I’m not undermining my own authority and experience.

I didn’t really realize that being Questioner was part of my make-up, and not something that my mom taught me to do, until reading Gretchen Rubin’s book Better Than Before, a book about habits. I picked up Rubin’s book after listening to her on Diane Sanfilippo and Liz Wolfe’s podcast Balanced Bites. What’s key here is that understanding how we develop habits has a lot to do with how we respond to inner and outer expectations. Rubin writes, "When we try to form a new habit, we set an expectation for ourselves. Therefore, it’s crucial to understand how we respond to expectations."

Are you one of those people who loves setting New Year’s Resolutions—either because you like to start the new year with a goal, or because you feel like you should? I don’t. I scoff at New Year's Resolution making, actually.  Because it’s an expectation that doesn’t make sense to me. Sure, maybe that expectation is either implicit or explicit depending on what kinds of circles you run in, but I realized a few years ago that I don’t really care about setting habits during the beginning of the year. And I certainly don’t care that “everyone else” is doing it or because it might be a tradition or yada yada yada. I want to be able to set habits whenever I want to. Not when it’s the popular thing to do. (And this is where Rubin’s point about expectations affecting habits made a lot of sense to me.)

In Rubin’s research on habits and expectations, she realized that there are four tendencies to how people respond to expectations. People are either Upholders, Obligers, Questioners, or Rebels, according to Rubin:

  • "Upholders respond readily to both outer expectations and inner expectations."
  • "Questioners question all expectations, and will meet an expectation only if they believe it’s justified."
  • "Obligers respond readily to outer expectations but struggle to meet inner expectations."
  • "Rebels resist all expectations, outer and inner alike."

As a Questioner, I question expectations (asking “why”—a lot). I don’t mind meeting expectations if they make sense to me. So, if you knew me as a kid, or you’re wondering why I tagged myself as a “compliant firstborn,” it’s because, as a kid and young adult, it made sense to me to follow my parents’ expectations. It made sense to me to listen to my mom because—as I told myself—(a) she’s in charge, (b) she’s mom, so she must know better, and (c) I don’t want to get into trouble.

Rubin explains that Questioners are “motivated by reason, logic, and fairness. They wake up and think, “What needs to get done today, and why?” And this is what I do. I think about what needs to be done each day (or by month or semester), and then I decide what I want/need to accomplish and why. Again, it’s always “why?” So, if there’s a deadline, that’s a perfect reason why to meet an expectation. Or if I want to send out an article by the end of the summer, that’s also an excellent reason why. So, if upholding others’ expectations makes sense to me (which it usually does because I don’t like disappointing others), I’ll do it. 

What resonated the most with me about Rubin’s tendencies is that understanding people’s tendencies is freeing. When I realized that I, as a Questioner, questioned people’s expectations because it was a part of me and not just an annoying habit I had, I better understand the other people in my life. So, how does this impact the world around us? For one, the Rebel student won’t (always) ruffle my feathers when s/he is rebelling against my expectations. Or the colleague who is an Obliger? Well, now I better understand why s/he goes above and beyond to keep people happy when I could care less. Realizing that people’s tendencies has less to do with me and more to do with them has helped me understand and respond to discussions, disagreements, and arguments in a different way.

People’s tendencies are just that—parts of people. When people question my questions, or when people get annoyed with my questions, they are questioning and pushing against my tendency. I’m not trying to be annoying. And I’m certainly not purposely challenging authority. But I want to make sense of it all, so I can decide if and how I want to respond to expectations.

Now, this isn’t to say that Rebels won’t question or Obligers won’t rebel. And it’s also not to say that Rebels should be given free-reign to rebel, or that Obligers should be given free-reign to oblige. These tendencies have their downsides, too, if they are allowed to get out-of-control. In fact, on Rubin’s podcast, Happier, she discusses at length the four tendencies and how to get along with people who have different tendencies. I encourage you to check it out episode 013 (for an intro on the Four Tendencies) and episodes 035-038 (the Four Tendencies explained in detail).  

My greatest takeaway is that we don’t need to be offended, affronted, or annoyed by other people’s tendencies. It is what it is. Working and living with Upholders, Obligers, Questioners, and Rebels just means that we each have a natural way of responding to expectations that are different. And the sooner we realize that it’s not always about us, the better relationships we’ll have with those around us.


Are you a Questioner, Rebel, Upholder, or Obliger? Take Rubin’s Four Tendencies Quiz let me know what you think! Let’s connect on Twitter @GeneseaC or on Instagram @CattingWithAlice.