There are no easy solutions. As a social science junkie who has read countless books and blogs on the subject and tried out much of the advice — mostly to no avail — I can attest to this. So I don't take the title of this post lightly. And I write it only after several months of experimentation convinced me that one of the simplest pieces of advice I've heard is also one of the best.
It's not from a best-selling book, and no publisher would want it: even the most eloquent management thinker would struggle to create an entire book around it.
It was also not born in our world of digital excess and discontent. Instead, it was given to his teenage grandson, who is now in his fifth decade, by a man born in the nineteenth century.
The man in question, a business world éminence grise, is one of the most fascinating people I've ever met. He has contributed to the creation of well-known brands. He is now parachuted in to solve stock price threatening corporate crises, working only when he feels he has something to offer. When he's in the mood, he'll write speeches for Fortune 500 CEOs and politicians, his words billed at six figures.
He is a voracious reader as well as a prolific writer. Novels. But only for fun: when he's finished, he destroys them. He sees no reason to be published, or to seek publicity in general. Among his friends are some of the world's most powerful people, ranging from business leaders to politicians, actors, and other cultural luminaries. However, if you Google him, you will find little more than a smear on the internet.
I first met him for coffee in his apartment to talk about the strategy for a highly political non-profit working in Africa. Around his table sat a motley crew of outspoken individuals.
While making the coffee, our host said almost nothing. But, on the few occasions when he did interject with a brief question or observation, it always clarified exactly what was important, politely sweeping away the sludge of opinion that clogs such discussions. It was like watching a London Philharmonic conductor coaxing a small town student orchestra into shape.
So I was captivated when he shared some of the best advice he'd ever received.
If You Only Do One Thing, Make of This
He was in his early teens, about to start high school, when his grandfather pulled him aside and told him:
"Take 30 seconds — no more, no less — after every lecture, meeting, or significant experience to jot down the most important points. You'll be fine if you only do this, said his grandfather, and even if you only do this with no other revisions.
He had done so, and he was. In everything he's done since, he's done it with such accomplishment and still has enough room to live life to the fullest. He later included both of his sons, who have excelled in their young careers, in the pact."
He had done so, and he was. In everything he's done since, he's done it with such accomplishment and still has enough room to live life to the fullest. He later included both of his sons, who have excelled in their young careers, in the pact.
I've been experimenting with it for a few months. So far, here's what I've discovered:
It's not taking notes: Don't think you're exempt from the 30 second summation just because you write everything down in a meeting. Even though it is brief, this exercise is not the same as taking notes. It is a process of interpretation, prioritization, and decision-making.
It's difficult to decide what's most important: deciding what's most important is exhausting. It's amazing how easy it is to convince yourself that you've captured everything that matters, to make excuses to avoid this brief mental sprint — a kind of 100-meter dash for your mind.
Detail is a snare: We avoid the difficult work of deciding what few things matter precisely because we frequently, ostensibly, capture everything. Of course, the art of elimination is central to much of excellence. Furthermore, the 30-second review prevents you from using quantity as an excuse.
You must act quickly: if you wait a few hours, you may remember the facts but not the nuance. And this makes all the difference in determining what is important. It could be the tone of someone's voice, the way one seemingly simple suggestion sparks so many others, or the shadow of an idea in your head triggered by a passing comment.
You improve your listening skills and your ability to ask probing questions: When you get into the habit of doing the 30 second review, it begins to change the way you pay attention, whether you're listening to a lecture or participating in a discussion. It's like learning to recognize a simple melody in the midst of a cacophony of sound. And as you listen more intently and ask better questions that elicit actionable responses, your 30 second review will become more useful.
You are more capable of assisting others: Many of the observations that make the 30 second cut are about what matters to other people. Even if the goal is to help you better manage different interests in future conversations, it also helps you understand the needs of others and thus solve their problems. This comes as no surprise to me: in months of interviewing people who make generous connections, I've been struck by how many have their own unconscious version of the 30 second review: focused on how best they can help.
It gets easier and more valuable: Each time you practice, it gets a little easier, a little more helpful, and little more fun.