How do you Learn, Think and Execute?

At a higher level, I think most jobs, roles, positions, occupations etc… have three major buckets where all activities would be slotted into: Learning, Thinking and Executing.

Every job has components of it that fit under one of those three buckets but the amount of time one spends doing activities in each bucket will vary. Not to mention, how one goes about learning, thinking and executing will vary per role as well.

What am I getting at?

Well, here are some point of views from my professional experience as an auditor, consultant and investor.

Auditor’s lens:

In audit, I would characterize my time split in the role as having been: 10% Learning, 10% Thinking and 80% Executing.

Now, why is that?

Well, it was the nature of the role. As an auditor, I was always in the middle of “busy season”. For context, an accountant’s busy season is the period where you disappear from any social radar and sometimes don’t see the sun. Literally. When I woke up the sun had not risen, my audit room had no windows or tinted glasses, and when I went home the sun was gone.

During this period, what matters is how much of the audit procedures the team and I was able to pump out and get done by the deadline. The running joke in audit is that we are permanently understaffed every year. I don’t think I’ve heard of any project that was properly staffed and/or budgeted. I mean, why do that when you can stretch out the work to 100hrs a week for 1 person in the prime of their youth?

Anyhow, the nature of the work was focused on pumping out as many audit files as I could. Hence, most of my time was just on executing. Sure, I would have to “know” what I’m doing but most of the time it’s not rocket science. I’d spend the majority in the first few weeks learning how to audit specific procedures. Then with that simple 10hrs of learning you proceed to pump out ticking and tying for the remaining 100s of hours for the next few months.

It’s no news that when you start off as an auditor you spend the good chunk of your first audit just stamping things as “agree to prior year” without fully understanding why. You tend to only get the non-material sections so it’s not a big a deal but I remember telling my manager at the time that I had no idea what I was doing and I only pretended like I did. He loved my honesty because no one would actually admit to it but that was commonly the case since most young accountants never take the time to learn nor even think. I, of course, have a responsibility too. But when your entire cohort agrees they too have no idea what they are doing but we’re pumping out work for 80hrs a week it seems to be natural for the job. The shift in time allocation my change as one progresses but from what I’ve experienced and seen, it’s not much different for the first 5 years.

Consultant’s lens:

Consulting is a little tough to generalize. I was able to experience vastly different kinds of projects throughout my tenure and that nature can make the time allocation very different. Unlike audit, where your duties per different audit didn’t change much, consulting could have vastly different project flows depending on the project you were doing. But if I were to generalize over the projects I had done, I would say it’s about 20% learning, 20% thinking and 60% executing. Also, a caveat is I’ve had consulting colleagues who’ve had even more monotonous projects than my audit experience (think 98% execution and no thinking).

A project where I’m consulting a startup on market sizing could be 50% learning as I spend most of the time learning about the hospitality and childcare industry by calling government employees, reading provincial budget documents or speaking with daycare centers. An energy project where I have to build a model to determine the viability of wind turbines and solar panels to replace a diesel generator may be 40% thinking as I spend weeks white-boarding the architecture of the model. One project may be creating a new credit card from scratch, one where I’m just in meetings from 9 to 5pm straight so I eat my lunch at 5:30pm to do my work after. That project was purely 80% executing, just formatting powerpoint slides to say things no one would read and get dumped in the trash, to come out wishing I got to learn more about payments as a whole.

Investor’s lens:

In my latest role as an investor I would say it was about 50% learning, 40% thinking and 10% executing.

Now, this may depend on the kind of investor you are. I was working at a Buffet/Munger style shop. This means we were fundamentals-driven bottom-up investors who focused on doing in-depth research into companies to buy for the long-term (the average stock was owned for about 8 years in the portfolio). So forget Gordon Gecko, Wolf of Wall Street or any kind of imagination of a media-portrayed finance environment. No one is screaming and we are not predicting oil prices but silently reading non-stop.

Given the kind of strategy the fund implemented this meant not making many useless trades (though some did happen, human nature I guess). My only execution would come from compiling my learnings and thoughts into a report. Reports didn’t have to be pretty (as one of the portfolio managers said we were not in the business of wasting time to make things pretty). Hence, most of the day was filled with talking with management of companies and the full value chain (i.e. competitors, suppliers, customers) to learn how an entire ecosystem worked. Some days I’d spend 1 -4 hrs just staring off into the corner of the ceiling thinking about what I’d learned and its implications for the potential investment. This was normal. Given each execution would result in the movement of hundreds of millions of dollars it only makes sense that lot’s of learning and thinking should go into it.

Building and finding a lens that fits me.

The experience I had is obviously unique to me and it will depend per individual and their seniority level as well. However, I do believe my experience won’t drift materially far from the mental model for each profession for anyone with <5 years of experience in that field.

There were positives and negatives to each role I had. Some more of one than others. However, the diversity in experiences allowed me to see more of what mix of Learning, Thinking and Executing I liked. It gave me further insight into how I liked to do such activities and what kind of environments and roles would be better suited for such activities.

What I’m getting at is that the breakdown is up to you. You should pick a breakdown that meets your needs. You may not be someone who likes to go around learning about a bunch of random businesses and want to fixate on one thing. You may not like sitting on your ass and thinking about how everyone else in the investing industry is wrong about a specific investment opportunity. You may be someone who wants to execute non-stop, whether it’s just constantly practicing an instrument or playing a crap ton of hands in poker. What you want to be and do should be reflective of such a distribution of time.

It’s also how you go about doing these activities too. You may learn better when you are interviewing other folks instead of reading annual reports. You may think better when you are in a fast-paced go-go-go every second counts organization than one that makes a move once a year. The execution you’d prefer to make may be in working with people, or pumping out data models or something much more physical.

The question is whether you’ve taken the time to ask yourself these questions and have thought about which path is best for you.

How much of your time is split between activities where you Learn, Think and Execute?

 

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